The Revd Canon Dr Alvyn Pettersen
The Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary


Sung Eucharist

Isaiah 61:1-11.      Luke 1:46-55.

My soul magnifies the Lord.

So our gospel reading began. A few verses later it then continued, 'for the Mighty One has done great things for me.'[1]

There are other translations of Mary’s song. But whichever translation is chosen, a challenge is issued, a challenge which perhaps is most obvious in the translation used whenever evening prayer according to the Book of Common Prayer is said or sung. For there the verb, to magnify, is used, and used not once, but twice.

'My soul,' that translation runs, 'doth magnify the Lord … For he that is mighty hath magnified me.'

The challenge then, implicit elsewhere but explicit here, is ‘how is it best to understand the one verb, to magnify, when the subjects of that one verb are two different subjects, two very different subjects?’ In the one case the subject is Mary. It is she who ‘magnifies’ the Lord; and, in the other, the subject is the Lord. It is the Lord who ‘hath magnified’ Mary.

To untutored eyes, to uncritical ears at evensong, the magnifying, the exalting may seem to be a reciprocal act in which these two subjects, Mary and the Lord, show, each to the other, mutual approbation, mutual aggrandizement. To the tutored eye, however, to the attentive ear there is no true reciprocity here. For while the language may be common, the subjects of the verb, the persons concerned, and so the deeds done, are different, essentially different.

The one person was a Jewess, then living in a city of Galilee named Nazareth, but a young person. The other person was God, omnipresent, the Ancient of Days. The one was Mary, a “handmaiden of the Lord.”[2] The other was the Lord, whose handmaiden Mary was. The one, in the language of the ‘Hail Mary’, may have been ‘holy Mary, mother of God’; but the other was God, the Holy One, he who 'showed strength with his arm; … scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; … , put down the mighty from their thrones; … and the rich he hath sent empty away.'[3]

Perhaps, even more significantly, when it comes to their being different, they are essentially different. The One, the Lord, whose handmaiden the young Jewess was, was One who could not be magnified in the sense of being made greater. For from before time, throughout history, and far in the farthest of all eternities, this One was and is and ever shall be the Great and Mighty One. By contrast, Mary was but a finite creature. She was one of whom it may accurately be said that ‘there was a time when she was not;’[4] and now, in adulthood, Mary was an inhabitant of a town of which it once was asked, 'can anything good come out of Nazareth?'[5]

Anything but her Maker’s equal, the singer of this morning’s paean, self-confessedly was one of low estate. It is not therefore entirely surprising, indeed, it was quite proper that Mary humbled herself before her Maker, to 'let it be to [her] according to [God’s] word,'[6] opened herself to become God’s servant. And it was in this very act of humbling herself before God, an act which in its very self was a praising of the One before whom she humbled herself, that, paradoxically, Mary found herself ‘magnified’. It was in so emptying herself that Mary found herself filled by the One who ever fills 'the hungry with good things,'[7] ever blesses beyond measure, ever magnifies his people far beyond their wildest dreams. For the property of this God is ever to exalt the humble and meek.

If you wish, if God’s humbling himself in being born of Mary revealed God’s eternal greatness, a natural greatness, a greatness to which nothing can be added, Mary’s humbling herself that God might be born of her was her opening herself to being made great, made great, not with a natural greatness, nor with an achieved greatness, nor even with a greatness thrust upon her, but with an unmerited greatness, a generously, gently and freely given greatness. Or again, if you wish, if Mary’s magnifying the Lord was her acknowledging her Lord’s very greatness, the Mighty One’s magnifying Mary was an example of God’s being true to her son’s reflection that 'everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; and all who humble themselves will be exalted.'[8]

Traditionally one is encouraged to ‘imitate Christ’. But, on this day when we particularly celebrate Christ’s mother, perhaps we may encourage one another to ‘imitate Mary’. So, in thought and word and deed, let us again forsake any shape or form of devotional ‘cupboard love’. Let us again forgo magnifying God, mistakenly thinking that thereby we will compel God to magnify us. For that was not Mary’s way. Rather let us be true to Mary and magnify the Lord, simply and solely because 'to the only wise God, [Mary’s and] our Saviour, [belong] glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever.'[9]

In short, especially today, ours it is to remember Mary, to magnify the Lord, and to live accordingly. Amen.


[1] Luke 1:46,49

[2] Luke 1.48

[3] Luke 1:52-53

[4] See Nicene Creed, Anathemas.

[5] John 1.46

[6] Luke 1:38

[7] Luke 1:53

[8] Luke 14:11; 18:14

[9] Jude 25