What we can learn from Mary’s Song

Four Advent lessons

I’ve been listening again to the song, ‘Breath of Heaven’. It’s been around for three decades and reminds us of Mary’s humanity as she awaits the birth of her son, Jesus. We see her wonderful faith-filled surrender – “I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.” Yet straight after that is the line, “Help me be strong, help me be, help me.” Mary struggles with the vocation she’s been given. We see her fears, her need for God’s reassurance – “hold me together”. Surrender and obedience don’t come naturally, even if you’re a chosen woman like Mary. Somehow that song makes Mary more accessible to me. Like us all, Mary struggles with surrender and trust.

Mary’s Song – the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – is a passage that’s sung and recited at evening prayers/Vespers in some branches of the Church, and has been set to music by composers like Bach and Mozart. The angel Gabriel has just visited Mary to tell her she’ll mother the Christ-child and he’s also mentioned the pregnancy of her barren cousin, Elizabeth: “No word from God will ever fail.”

Mary has travelled over 100km from Nazareth to Judah to visit Elizabeth. When Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, confirms that Mary and the child in her womb are blessed, Mary exclaims, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” So begins Mary’s Song.

So often our prayer is self-focused and supernatural shopping lists. Mary invites us to adore God.

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Adoration

So what can we learn from Mary’s Song this Advent? Firstly, Mary’s Song contains adoration. She begins with praise of God’s holiness – he’s set apart from all others, and God’s holiness is expressed through his mercy and strength – his mighty deeds, remembering his promise to Abraham and his descendants. The religious philosopher, Friedrich von Hügel, used to say that prayer without adoration is like a triangle with one side missing. But so often our prayer is self-focused and supernatural shopping lists. Mary invites us to adore God.

So how can our prayers become more adoring this Advent? Perhaps a spiritual practice that might help is praying a Psalm out aloud each morning. Praying Scripture aloud slows our reading, engaging our visual and auditory memories. So often we skim-read Scripture. It’s good to slow down the reading and read it prayerfully. The Psalms were the prayerbook of the Church and they train us in the language of prayer. Perhaps they can help us adore God more this Advent.

Humility

Secondly, Mary’s song teaches us about humility. We see Mary’s own “humble state” and then the concept of humility is reiterated when we read about God lifting up the humble. Mary’s name means “exalted one” and we see humility as essential to her own sense of being “lifted up”.

Humility is essential in the Christian life. So how might we become more humble? A key to developing humility is having authentic self-knowledge – seeing ourselves as we really are. Not thinking we’re more important than we are. As well as not having pride, it also means we don’t wallow in self-deprecation or a sense of unworthiness. In fact, it’s the double knowledge; we see God in his majesty, then we see ourselves by contrast as small. We stay “little” by keeping our gaze fixed on God – in his holiness, his mercy and his strength, as emphasised here by Mary.

The spiritual practice we’re invited into is gazing on Jesus in the Gospels, meditating upon his life.

So how might we stay little this Advent? As well as asking the Spirit for humility, perhaps we can focus on Christ – our model of humility. In Philippians 2, Paul writes, “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

So this Advent, as we await the King, Jesus is our example of humility. Perhaps the spiritual practice we’re invited into is gazing on Jesus in the Gospels, meditating upon his life. Devotional reading about Jesus in the Gospels can be like (in von Hügel’s words) letting a lozenge melt imperceptibly in our mouths. We read about Jesus prayerfully – immersing ourselves in his words, actions, life and person. Humility is central to our journey of spiritual formation, becoming like Christ.

Receptive openness

Thirdly, Mary’s song shows us her receptive openness. Mary believes and trusts God with her entire self – her soul, spirit and body. Gabriel tells Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Mary is emptied of self, so she has a full capacity for God. She is completely self-abandoned to God and self-oblivious to herself. As we follow Mary’s example and offer our lives fully to God, we too can become a pure capacity for God.

The humble are exalted because their emptiness leaves room for God to burst into their hearts and lives. Mary is in contrast to the proud, the rulers and rich, who think they’ve figured out everything and are already full of themselves, so there’s no room for God. So what is filling us up and getting in the way? Are we full of ourselves and our important plans, so we’re closed to God and have no space for his action?

Advent might be a time to ask what do we need to change to make more room for Christ in our lives.

Perhaps a spiritual practice here is the Daily examen (examination) of consciousness. As we’re brushing our teeth or having a shower before bed, perhaps we could prayerfully reflect upon the day. We journey through the events of our day like we’re on a train journey, slowly stopping the train as we recall events we need to examine more closely. Was there some way God was trying to make connection? What might it have been? When was I most open to God? Pray thanksgiving. When was I most closed to God? Ask for forgiveness. Then, most significantly, we ask to be more conscious of God’s presence the next day, to look for his action.

So Advent might be a time to ask what do we need to change to make more room for Christ in our lives. The invitation is to cultivate a leisured attentiveness – training ourselves to feel God’s gentle pressure and hear his whisper. We need space for prayer and reflection to develop a receptive openness to God.

Community

Lastly, Mary’s song reminds us about our need for community. After the angel visits Mary, she goes straight to Elizabeth’s home, presumably to assist at the birth of John the Baptist. She stays there for three months until the birth – a kindness to her elderly kinswoman, particularly because her husband, Zechariah can’t speak to her! But Mary also would have gained from Elizabeth’s physical, emotional and spiritual preparation for her own confinement – its pain, confusion and joy. We all need each other to walk the Christian journey. So this Advent, the invitation to us all is to worship with other Christians.

In summary, this Advent, I invite us all to:

  • adoring waiting – praying a Psalm out aloud each day
  • humble waiting – devotional reading of the Gospels so we can gaze at Christ
  • receptive, open waiting – the prayer of examen of consciousness at the close of each day
  • communal waiting – worshipping in community.

In the words of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’: “O come let us adore him.” It’s not, “O come let me adore him!” It’s us. Together we adore the coming King.

Perhaps this Advent might become a time when we are all enlarged in the waiting (just as Mary’s belly grew during her season of waiting for the Christ-child). So how might Mary’s Song become our song this Advent? And how might Christ be birthed in each of us?