Rejoice in the future

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Monday 1st June 2020 (The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth)
Zephaniah 3.14–18; Psalm 113; Romans 12.9–16; Luke 1.39–56

There is a theme that runs through all our readings today: ‘Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!’ (Zeph. 3.14), ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice’ (Rom. 12.15), ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1.47). The Magnificat, which we heard in our gospel reading, is Mary’s great song of rejoicing, and this is reflected in the other readings.

But is this a time to rejoice? We’re not at the end of the Covid-19 outbreak yet, people are still dying, people are still isolated and lonely, struggling financially, suffering from mental ill health… Is this a time to rejoice?

I find the background of this passage useful in thinking about this. For most of Christian history it was assumed that Mary actually sang the Magnificat – perhaps she was a very good poet and didn’t know it, or perhaps the Holy Spirit inspired her to spontaneously produce this sophisticated tapestry of Old Testament allusions in praise of God.

Nowadays most scholars find that a bit naïve. They point out that very little in the canticle actually fits closely with the context in which it was supposed to have been sung – how has the conception of Jesus brought down the powerful from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, or sent the rich away empty? The Magnificat (and, by the way, the Benedictus) actually resembles quite closely the sorts of hymns Jews were writing between about 200 BC and AD 100, some of which can be found in books of the Apocrypha such as Judith. These hymns are generally a patchwork of Old Testament quotations and allusions, expressing continuity between those singing the hymn and their ancestors – ‘just as God helped them, so God has helped us’.

But, except for v. 48, the Magnificat doesn’t look as though Luke wrote it. It’s in a different style from the surrounding prose, so a popular theory is that the hymn originated in a group of Jewish Christians in the middle of the first century. Luke heard it, wrote it down, added a verse about Mary, and inserted it into his story.

If this seems a bit dishonest, then remember that it was common practice in ancient writing to write speeches for historical characters that were considered to be ‘what they would have said’. No one was sitting with a pen and notepad jotting down the words that generals spoke to their troops before battle, but historians wrote these speeches into their histories. Luke presumably does something similar in the Acts of the Apostles for the sermons of Peter and Paul. They’re examples of the sort of preaching that the apostles did – they might very well have said such things, and in that sense they’re useful additions to the story.

So Luke probably took this hymn, added the lines

…for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed…

and used it in his story as something Mary could have sung.

But this creates a certain tension. The hymn was written after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, after the sending of the Spirit and the conversion of hundreds (or maybe thousands) of people, so it sounds a note of salvation accomplished – all those aorist verbs: ‘he has shown strength’, ‘he has scattered the proud’, ‘he has brought down the powerful’, ‘he has lifted up the lowly’… They make some sort of sense after the resurrection, but do they make sense before Jesus’s birth? He hasn’t done anything yet!

Luke clearly thought it made enough sense to put the canticles in their present positions. From the time of Jesus’s conception his victory over death and sin is guaranteed, and so Mary can sing about what God has done in Jesus as if it has already happened. This is why we celebrate Christmas, after all – not because Jesus’s birth accomplishes anything in itself, but because it is the start of a saving life.

Are we really in such a different situation? We’re ‘in the midst’. The end isn’t really in sight, either the end of Covid-19 or the end of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom. We look around and we don’t often see the powerful brought down from their thrones or the hungry filled with good things. Salvation might have been begun, but it’s not been completed.

But if we have faith in God, in his love for the world and his purposes for his creation, then we hope that such salvation will be accomplished one day. Even those early Jewish Christians who wrote most of the Magnificat hadn’t seen salvation on a very grand scale. The resurrection and the sending of the Spirit were down payments, guarantees that God had great things in store. Their singing of the Magnificat was also anticipatory, hopeful. Can we, like them, like Mary, rejoice in the future?

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