Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;…
We all recognize this passage, from William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” — some of us may even have had to memorize it in high school English class.
We all know that Marc Antony’s words about the supposedly “honourable” Brutus were, in fact, offered with a degree of biting sarcasm.
But we also all know that Marc Antony did not actually say these words.
After all, even though no one doubts that Julius Caesar or Marcus Junius Brutus, or Marc Antony existed, no one believes that Marc Antony actually spoke about Brutus with exactly the words that Shakespeare placed on Marc Antony’s lips in that fateful and powerful scene from Shakespeare’s play.
Rather, when we read these words, or hear them spoken, we know that these words are penned with a very specific intention within the play – with the desire to illustrate the qualities of Marc Antony’s character, to advance the plot, to illuminate the treasonous machinations of those who had assassinated Caesar, and to help the actors, and readers and viewers, to anticipate how the play shall unfold from there.
We study the words, not because they are a direct or historical quotation, but because they help to further the plot of the play in which they are set.
The reason that I mentioned this, today, that today’s Gospel reading functions in a very similar way.
That is, after the initial description of the interactions between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the Gospel reading includes words of a beautiful poetic ascription of praise, a monologue that is attributed to Mary in response to God’s work in her life.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
This passage, beginning in verse 46, is often referred to as the “Magnificat” since the first words in the Latin of this beautiful canticle are “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”.
“My soul magnifies the Lord.”
As we read these words, it can be good for us to remember that there is no reason for us to hold fast to some belief that these words were spoken by Mary herself, any more than we need to believe that Marc Antony spoke the exact words that Shakespeare placed upon his character’s lips. To suggest such a thing does not undermine the integrity or authority of Scripture – to the contrary, it invites us deeper into the meaning and message of these words.
Which serves to remind us, as readers, that these beautiful words are not merely the eloquent expression of a single young woman, in the midst of an admittedly strange experience over two thousand years ago, but rather they are a reflection of the message of the entire Gospel of Luke, and can serve as a source of great inspiration for the living of our faith, even today.
So how, then, is our understanding of the Gospel message – both then and now — advanced by these words of the Magnificat?
Perhaps the first thing to note, in the passage, is that the words of the Magnificat are, in fact, a response to Elizabeth’s commendation of Mary’s faith and trust in God. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” cried Elizabeth in the verses immediately preceding Mary’s famous canticle, “and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Elizabeth’s words celebrate Mary’s trust, her faithfulness, her blessedness because Mary had believed in the promises that God had made to the people.
But what is interesting is that, in response to Elizabeth’s commendation, Mary turns that word of commendation and blessing away from herself, and back to God. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Her blessedness was not because of her own goodness or trust or worthiness – rather, the source of her blessedness was God’s actions and God’s faithfulness.
Her words, therefore, are both humble but also theologically and spiritually profound. After all, so often, in this life, we equate a measure of blessing with our own deserving of that blessing, or we try to act in good and trustful ways in order to experience God’s blessing. But Mary turns this around – that she is blessed not because of her own goodness, but rather because God is good. Mary’s words serve as a powerful reminder that the presence and awareness of blessing, in this life, should lead us to humility and gratitude, rather than to a sense of pride and self-congratulation.
The words of the Magnificat then continue to shift our attention away from Mary to a much bigger picture than simply the story of one young woman. Words about God’s mercy being extended from generation to generation, and how God’s presence and activities, in this world, upset our assumptions and our perceptions of the nature of power, prestige, wealth and status.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation;.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
They are powerful words, and contribute to some of the most important themes that will unfold through the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which were written by the same author and share many common emphases and themes, not least of which is that the presence of the Gospel was challenging to the comfortable, and comforting to the challenged. The Gospel is – ever and always – good news; but there are times when it passes judgement on us before we can discover the grace that rests within it; and as such, it is a message that we are wise to continue to hear and to ponder, even today.
Moreover, when we place our confidence and our trust in the systems of power in this world, it can be good for us to remember that real confidence and real trust is only wisely placed – as Mary’s words commend – in the One who has the power to upset our expectations, to upend our assumptions, to strengthen the weak, to raise up the lowly, and to challenge those who use power and wealth, in this world, primarily for their own gain. It is an almost revolutionary text, when we actually pay attention to the message that it contains.
The words that the author of Luke’s Gospel places on Mary’s lips have virtually nothing to do with her pregnancy or with the birth of her child, but rather they can be – and, in fact, should be – heard as a radical, challenging, transforming, humbling declaration that something powerful was happening, that God’s ways should not be assumed to be synonymous with the ways of this world, that God’s promises should be trusted since they will be fulfilled, and that we are wise to heed those implications in the ways that we live our lives.
The promises that had been made, from of old, to Israel, the promises that had been made, from of old, to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, were worth trusting – because the One who made them was worth trusting.
Mary’s words, therefore, are a song of humility, a song of praise, a song of challenge to the powerful of this world, a song of consolation to those who were weak and vulnerable, and lowly in the eyes of the world, a song of hope for that time when God’s promises would be fulfilled, a song of confident trust that God’s ways, though challenging to the ways of this world, would ultimately and eternally prevail.
It is a song that we are all wise to embrace and to ponder, perhaps especially in this season – because, in only a few short days, we are going to celebrate the birth of the One whose life and actions, whose insights and teaching, whose death and resurrection, would prove Mary’s words to be true. In his presence, the lowly would be raised up; the hungry would be fed; the vulnerable would be defended; the excluded would be embraced; mercy would be extended to those who were suffering; the powerful would be challenged; and the seemingly overwhelming powers of this world – even the power of death itself – were going to be overthrown.
So if you think that Mary’s words are beautiful, and inspiring, well, keep reading the Gospel story. Because this wonderful song of praise is placed in this text for a very specific reason – and it has virtually nothing to do with Mary.
Rather, it is there to help us to understand the meaning of what her son was born to accomplish.
And yet, almost ironically, it is his life, it is what he did, that allows each and every one of us to find reason to join our voices with Mary in declaring that the promises of God have been fulfilled, that God’s mercy has been poured out upon us and upon our world, that the powers of this world have been overturned, and that our souls can magnify the Lord, and our spirits can rejoice in God our Saviour.
And the Caesars of this world? Well, they will rise and fall, the empires and powers will come and go, but a child has been born to us, and in him the kingdom of God has come.
And it shall never pass away.
Thanks be to God.