Welcome + Worship + Witness

Rt Revd James Bell: A Magnificat-shaped world

07 September 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Rt Revd James Bell
Isaiah 61. 10-end; Luke 1. 46-55

Hymns: they can excite some pretty strong feelings! You can either love them or loathe them. At the extremes, you might fine one deeply meaningful and uplifting and another might seem like pious sentimentality from a bygone era.

I have to say that I tend to think that the announcement of a hymn is an invitation to sing – and sometimes it is best to decline the invitation for all or part of the hymn!  How, for instance, any sensible adult can sing all the words of Mrs Alexander in Once in Royal David’s City defeats me. I’m thinking of course of the line, Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he. Close second comes the line when like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around. I find I simply can’t accept the invitation to sing those words. Given the choice, I should also decline the invitation to sing that other well-known production of Mrs Alexander’s pen, All things bright and beautiful! I know that there are those who chose to sing it: I’ve even known it sung at Confirmations when the candidates have been given the chance to choose the hymns (not a good idea!). I suppose that their choice has to do with familiarity, but I can’t help wondering if is it also because people expect to sing things that they don’t mean in church?

Why do I have such an aversion to All things bright? Well, the tune may have something to do with it, but above all it is such a reflection of the time in which it was written. The great spiritual classics are timeless; this is surely time-bound.

The tall trees in the greenwood/The meadows where we play/ The rushes by the water/ We gather every day.

As one organist once observed, it’s a long time since I gathered any rushes!!

And then the verse usually now omitted – actually it is number two – or three if you take the chorus as the first verse, but in either case suggesting it came high up in Mrs. Alexander’s priorities:

The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high or lowly/And ordered their estate.

That makes it abundantly clear that what the hymn is doing is speaking of the perceived ordering of things in creation and the ordering of things in human society. 

And so to Mary’s hymn, honoured and used by the church through countless generations. You might call it the timeless classic. What Mary’s hymn speaks of is something entirely different to what we discovered in Mrs. Alexander’s: that is the re-ordering of creation, the re-ordering of human society, a reversal of how things have worked out with human beings in power. 

All things bright and beautiful declared that inequality was written into the ordering of things; the Magnificat asserts that God’s order brings equality and justice. Every time we use Mary’s hymn, and for some of us that is going on for every day, we are reminded of the radicalism of the Gospel, a radicalism that won the hearts of countless souls in the earliest times. It is said by Alan Kreider in his book on Worship and Evangelism Pre-Constantine that one thing that caused the church to grow so rapidly in the early years (in the absence of overt evangelism and church growth strategies) was the attractiveness of the radical social equality that it practised. It seems to me that we have always been in danger of losing touch with that. We need to ask, does the church, does this church reflect the re-ordering which God’s kingdom brings, or does it reflect the ordering of the world? All too often in the days of Christendom, the church did reflect and even legitimise the ordering of the world. 

As Christendom departs, we are presented with the opportunity to reclaim the vision of God’s re-ordering of human society. Our churches need to become again communities: communities in which all are equal: equally valued, equally nourished, whatever age, gender, race, language, ability, colour; communities in which the only status is that of a common relationship with God. We need not only to recognise the genuine community created by God’s activity as celebrated by Mary in terms of the church, but to recognise our community with all who are struggling and suffering in our world. That will always mean prayer, often prayer the lament as we recognise the violence and injustice and deprivation caused to so many in our world. It may mean taking action like involvement in the nearest foodbank or supporting the dispossessed children of Gaza, for instance.

Of course, for the recognition and living in genuine community to be true, for it to be realised, we must have God at the heart, God at the centre of our own lives and the lift of the church. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” cries Mary as she begins her hymn of praise.  “My soul magnifies the LORD”: that is where the re-ordering begins, with the magnifying, the making larger of the Lord. And it has got to happen inside each one of us, in the soul. We have to stop magnifying ourselves, our own wishes and needs and preferences. We have to stop magnifying others, whether as leaders or heroes or celebrities. And we start magnifying, making larger, the Lord. When we magnify, make larger, the Lord, in our souls, we will magnify, make larger the Lord, in our community. And then God will be able to have his way amongst us, a way of justice and equality, in which even the most apparently insignificant (and what more apparently insignificant person in the first century than a teenage Jewish girl) may become bearers of the Word of God.

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