Every Sunday within the Christian church is a celebration of Resurrected Life in Jesus. In addition to that assumed foundation, I am taking some liberty today to nod towards another tradition, on August 15 every year (that’s today), to celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus. No human was more intimately proximate or connected to Jesus than Mary, so she holds a unique place in the Christian mind and imagination. In the Eastern Christian tradition, Mary is referred to as “Theotokos,” which means “God-bearer.”
The Gospel lesson that we just heard is one of the most famous passages in the bible. It is Mary’s response to God when the angel Gabriel visits her in Luke’s account to tell her that she will conceive a child. The passage is often referred to as the “Magnificat,” which is the first word of Mary’s response in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” or, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This very passage will be sung by thousands of choirs around the world this evening when the sun sets.
This morning, I would like to examine the first three lines of the Magnificat
to highlight one of the most profound truths of Christian revelation:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. (Lk. 1:46-7)
This truth, which Paul later summarizes when he says that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), is radically difficult to believe, but it animates the ability of our souls, in Mary’s words, “to magnify the Lord.”
To illustrate this truth, I will share one of my favorite stories from the desert monastic tradition in Egypt (I have used this story a lot, so my former student from William & Mary who led us in our psalm today may roll his eyes from the pews). The story is recorded on an ancient scroll pertaining to a pair of monks with eccentric names. The first monk is Abba Marcarius, a friendly, old monk who is respected by his peers for his wisdom. The second monk is Theopemtus, who is feared by his peers for his severity.
When Abba Marcarius hears reports of one of Theopemtus’s flashes of anger, he visits with him in his cell. Theopemtus receives Abba Marcarius with great joy. Suspecting that Theopemtus is struggling, Abba Marcarius asks him, “How are you getting on?” Theopemtus does what many of us do when we are struggling: he covers it up and pretends like everything is fine. He responds, “Thanks to your prayers, all goes well.” Abba Marcarius is undeterred by this posturing, so he asks a more probing question, “Are you struggling with your thoughts?” Theopemtus, afraid to admit anything is amiss, replies “No, everything is all right.” As a side note, if any of you have spent much time with adolescents, this refrain of “everything if fine” probably sounds very familiar...
It is here that Abba Marcarius does something profound. He responds, “See how many years I have been a monk, and I am praised by all for my wisdom, and though I am old, I still struggle with immoral thoughts and temptations.” Hearing this admission, Theopemtus says, “Believe me, Abba, it is the same with me.” And one by one, Abba Marcarius goes on admitting all of his own struggles, creating space for Theopemtus to admit the same. Once Theopemtus admits openly that he is struggling, he asks Abba Marcarius for help, and he begins a process of reconciliation.
This story captures the miracle of how God’s power manifests itself in our world. God’s power, which is the power to free us from fear itself, moves through our weakness and vulnerability. This is precisely the same dynamic towards which Mary points us when she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the humiliation of his servant.” God does not look on Mary’s strength, or intelligence, or wealth, or beauty with favor; rather, he looks with favor on her humiliation. It is Mary’s lowliness that makes her favorable to God. God could have chosen any woman on earth in whom to become flesh, but he chooses Mary because of her humility. God’s choice perfectly echoes a famous line from Psalm 51, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite spirit” (Ps. 51:17).
This dynamic is not always obvious. The powers of this world (domination, coercion, popularity, success, to name a few) are tremendously influential in the short term. Let us return to Abba Marcarius. If Abba Marcarius had stormed into Theopemtus’s cell flexing his rank and authority and yelled at him, Marcarius probably could have forced Theopemtus to apologize. But at what cost? If Theopemtus’s problem was rooted in his fear of making mistakes, would yelling at him and highlighting his mistakes publicly reduce his fears or reinforce them?
It is when Abba Marcarius invites Theopemtus to see his own humiliation that Theopemtus begins the process of reconciliation by admitting his failures. When we are weak, we invite others to be honest about their own weakness. And the truth has the power to set us free.
Surely, many of us have experience with both domination and weakness in conflicts with our loved ones. Conflicts escalate when we draw battle lines and try to force our loved ones to obey us through domination. We can often achieve our short-term objectives this way. But at what cost? For example, power through domination might sound like, “You need to clean your dishes in the sink you lazy idiot!” Power made perfect in weakness might sound like, “When you leave dirty dishes in the sink, all of my work to clean the kitchen feels overlooked and I feel like a worthless servant who has no value.”
A response through domination might sound like, “Don’t yell at me and stop being so high strung about the dishes! I will do them later.” Whereas power made perfect in weakness might sound like, “I had a tough day and I feel like a failure at work, so when you raise your voice with me about the dishes it makes me feel like a failure at home too.”
Let us return to Mary for a moment as she sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the humiliation of his servant.” Mary knows that she is lowly and humiliated, and it is precisely this admission that makes her the recipient of God’s favor. This is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith, described elsewhere as, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Mtt. 20:16). It is important to note that we humans are experts at “gaming” systems. If the last shall be first, most of us are sensible enough to race to the end of the line! Or, in this case, perhaps we might put on a false humility and beat our breasts publicly all the while reveling in our own righteous humility.
Here is the catch, we can’t fake our own humiliation with God. Faith and humility are both alike. The moment that we claim to own them, we confirm that they have escaped us. This is Mary’s greatest lesson for us. Our souls are free to magnify God only when we lay our egos down and let them die. Faith is not a system that we can game; rather, it is a particular way of being that opens us up to the possibility of God. Like Mary, when we move in the Way of faith and humility, we become vehicles of God’s Spirit. When we sing the Magnificat, we learn to imitate the “theotokos” that brings Jesus into the world. We too have the power to become bearers of God’s Spirit. This is the dynamic that the second stanza of our Gospel hymn addresses, “Forbid it Lord, that I should boast…all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.” This is another way of saying that pride and power keep us from experiencing God’s favor, so we must sacrifice them in the same way that Jesus sacrifices himself.
This paradoxical truth is as terrifying as it is beautiful. Nothing is so difficult for us as to admit our own weakness in the face of failure, and yet, that is the Way towards Life. For those of us who have experienced escalating conflicts of domination in our lives, we can testify that there is no life there. Only a cursory look at the political and cultural polarization in our country suggests that there is no life in this kind of escalating conflict. On the other hand, for those of us who have experienced the mysterious rhythm of relationships defined by honesty and reconciliation, we can testify that our souls are most alive when we have permission to fail and share our weakness with those we love.
Mary is the pioneer of the faith revealed to us in Jesus, the truth that power is made perfect in weakness. Mary is also a witness to the promise of faith when she sings, “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Because all of us are lowly at heart, but if we truly sing with Mary, we too shall be lifted up.