Delivered Sunday, December 17, 2017
“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.
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.”
Luke 1:46 – 49
Aside from the Golden Rule, if one were to choose an ancient text to live by, this would be it. Deep down, it reminds us that the human soul can find magnificence, not being satisfied with mere survival as absolutely strong as that instinct is.
What does magnificence mean? And what does it mean to say, “The Mighty One has done great things for me”?
As you know, I don’t think the meanings of words just drop out of the air magically, but rather are rooted in the concrete experience of being human as humanity evolves. So, too, revelation.
If we look at the etymology of Magnificence, it means from the 14th Old English “great mindedness, courage;” and from the Latin magnficentia meaning “splendor,” also from the Latin stem Magnificus meaning“great, elevated, eminent.” It literally means ‘doing great deeds’ from magnus, meaning “great.”
When you add the Latin facere which means “to make”, then magnificence means “to make great, or that which is great, or greatness” It is also one of the Aristotelian scholastic virtues from the Greek megaloprepeia, meaning “expenditure combined with good taste.”
I prefer the more Latin focus on ‘greatness’ than the Greek, but the latter too is helpful especially in the context of a “commercialized” Christmas. Will you spend your time and resources in “good taste?”
What does it mean to make something great within yourself, or for that matter outside yourself? What is greatness, itself?
St. Anslem’s famous ontological argument resorts to this sense of greatness. God, for St. Anslem, writing at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th centuries, was this: God is “That than which nothing greater can be thought.” There are reams of articles written about this ontological argument, and, of course, all definitions of God are limiting and therefore contain some fallacy.
But the simplicity of St. Anselm’s argument, I believe, rests with this idea of greatness—a sense of the highest point, of the most brilliant splendor—that special place in our hearts and minds where and when we cannot go any further or higher.
When our souls approach this domain, we become attuned to affections that we call religious and special to us. Those affections can be found ranging from the mystical to the pragmatic feelings of morality and ethics.
“That than which nothing greater can be conceived or thought” allows us to approach what we call the “divine.” What draws our souls to this idea is not the philosopher’s logic, but the deep desire to come before, to place ourselves before, the greatest being or our sense of that being, that is.
If not the end, this deep desire for the highest splendor is at least the beginning of the religious soul. When we approach this greatness, we believe it to be true because we ourselves “take on” a greatness that we otherwise could not experience or attain. We ourselves become magnified.
And when we become magnified– lifted up—we, according to the author of Luke, magnify the Lord. What does this mean? Does it mean we are the faintest reflections of such greatness and therefore somehow participate in it, as in the image of divine greatness residing in us, or could it mean that God’s greatness itself is magnified because our own magnanimity reflects back upon that which was and is the original source? Is Divine greatness lifting ourselves up, or is it remotely possible that we ourselves give splendor and greatness to our God. “The soul magnifies the Lord,” literally places before the Almighty One “greatness,” and by doing so, somehow impacts ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought.’
As anthropomorphic as we are in the understanding of religion (and believe me I count myself in this camp), do we have the imagination enough to see that who we are, how we behave, and how we live impact the one who created us? Is it possible that by lifting the divine up, placing his greatness before others, we are the occasion for making divine greatness known, and therefore creating a “meaning” between the one whom we call divine and our own selves and fellow humanity?
I dare say most of us, myself included, do not know whether we have such a capacity of soul to impact divinity. But during this Christmas season, I hope you find a quiet place and contemplate whether your life is worthy and great enough to influence that which is the greatest above you.
By so doing, my prayer is that you will find an appreciation that you are worthy enough for God to have come to you; that he has not abandoned the human race; that despite all the worries, burdens, wars and hatred that humanity imposes upon itself, God still comes for you–for all of us, even according to Luke, the lowliest of servants.
You see if he just came for some of us, our relationship with God would most certainly devolve into the morass of human failure. Then, by being exclusive, we would impose our own limitations upon God and our own frailties upon the Divine. We would risk the ruination of God, our ruination of God. For we would begin to impose our own sense of pride and power upon such divinity.
But when God comes for the lowliest of servants, for us all, then we can claim no superiority over God and most importantly no superiority over our fellow humanity. Said another way, our universality checks the proclivity to make ourselves God.
Therefore, we can say, “The Almighty One does great deeds for me,” for us, because we know such a claim will not lead to self-indulgence, but instead to a sincere and genuine magnification of God. For when people walk around thinking that God is only doing good deeds for them, they diminish the divine and find themselves, unwittingly, judging themselves superior. James talked about that last week in his sermon on scapegoating to which we all are prone.
But when we magnify the Lord, even within our own individual souls, we lift all humanity up to its potential greatness, for that is the only way it could be. For to magnify the lord is to magnify all creation and the Creator itself. We are not passive reflectors; our active reflection of the divine greatness amplifies and brightens all that is.
One of my favorite times is listening to Story Corp on National Public Radio. Many of you, I am sure, are aware of it. Story Corp gives people, anyone, the opportunity to tell a story about their life, by themselves or with someone, and it is usually about their relationship or an important event. It’s probably no longer than 1 or 2 minutes.
Last Friday’s Story Corp was about a Dr. William Weaver, who remembered 50 years ago the following Christmas: Dr. Weaver was ten years-old and on Christmas day discovered his new bike had been stolen. Living in a small community, his Father thought he knew who may have done the deed. So with his Father, they went to the end of an alley where a small shack stood.
They knocked on the door and an older, very poor gentleman answered. When told about the missing bike, the gentleman asked his ten year old grandson about the stolen item. The young boy broke into tears and confessed, “I just wanted something for Christmas.” He retrieved the bike and gave it back to Dr. Weaver.
When they returned home, they told the story to his mother, who was preparing Christmas dinner. Without saying a word, according to Dr. Weaver’s telling, she immediately cut the turkey in half, divided the dressing and yams and all the other dishes in even portions; his father went out and bought a sack of coal; then said to his son, “don’t you have another bike?” They returned to the shack and gave to the old man and his grandson the Christmas dinner, the coal, and the bike. Upon leaving Dr. Weaver’s father gave the gentleman a twenty dollar bill, a good sum in the day. The man broke down sobbing and said, “Thank you.”
Dr. Weaver’s parents were not wealthy. His mother was a domestic worker, his father, I believe, a janitor. They, themselves, did not have much, but they had enough to share.
What is amazing is that 50 years later, Dr. Weaver cannot remember what other presents he got that year for Christmas, I dare say he cannot even remember well the gifts of other Christmases, but 50 years later he remembers the Christmas of the stolen bike, the humble sharing of food, heat, and a twenty dollar bill. He remembers “making greatness” that Christmas, and he will remember it to the day he dies.
I imagine that those of you yesterday who helped cook for and commune with the men and women of Leland House will remember this far into future and long after other aspects of this Christmas season are forgotten. Many others of you will find similar ways to share and present greatness to others in need. You too will remember this Christmas for those gifts.
For what you have done is to “come for” the people who needed you, just as God has come for us, who also need a salvation.
There is the story of a Buddhist chaplain in a major hospital who gathered around him doctors and nurses for a spiritual exercise that went something like this:
Gathered in a circle imagine you have gone to the doctor and he has given you a diagnosis of a serious disease and you have seven years to live. Close your eyes and imagine how you will live it?
Now imagine soon thereafter on a follow up visit, your Doctor says the disease has spread, is powerful, and you have not seven years but seven months; how will it change you? Close your eyes and in another visit the Doctor says you have not seven months but seven days. What would shift inside you? How would you make your rounds and talk to your patients? Keep your eyes closed and imagine now the seven days is seven hours. It’s six-thirty and the end will come at 1:30 in the morning. How will you spend the time and, I would add, what will you remember? Will you have done and made any greatness in your life that deserves your memory in those seven hours.
I suggest to you that it will be the magnificent things of your life, as magnificence should be understand, that will find its way into your mind and soul that will give you a peace and a true joy in your final hours. But you have to make them, and they have to be worthy enough for you to actually remember them.
The doctors and nurses who participated with the Buddhist chaplain that day, said the spiritual exercise brought clarity to their minds. Their job was no longer just about diagnosis, treatment, cost efficiencies, and compartmentalization. They instead felt they were now free to be more alive. When in front of their patients, they listened more; they were there for them more and met them in the soulful place that their patients were. And a calmness came over them. I would say, “they came to their patients, as God this Christmas season comes to us.”
Dr. Weaver’s family that day “magnified the Lord,” not just themselves. They made their souls greater and even made the greatness of God visible, putting it before and placing it in front of others. Their greatness was reflected upon the old man and the young boy who had nothing. Therefore, with certainty we can say, even without knowing, that they too will never have forgotten that Christmas. This magnifies divinity.
It is prophetic that the scripture says “he shall set the prisoners free.” This is the pattern that the souls of the human race will hence forward live by. The little ten year old boy who innocently wanted a bike but wrongfully stole it, was set free and so were those who came to his home. How interesting it is that the occasion for the magnifying of the Lord began with the shortcoming of another, the pride and the desire for possessions of the human race.
As the Weaver family, having seen the plight of the family in the shack, came to them, so too God came for his human race, his creation, that he had hoped would love him and through such love magnify him.
St. Anselm’s argument that God is ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’ has many times been debunked by so-called modern positivism and logic. But I wish to debunk it another way. God is not just ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’. It is that than which nothing can be greater done…for another–nothing greater than that which can be magnified, not just thought.
Make your Christmas memorable. Make it special. Make greatness before you. And know that you make it for all humanity, but most assuredly know that you make it to the one who is greater than you can even conceive, but nonetheless came for you in the form of a servant, came for you in the flesh and the blood, that you may serve humanity in its flesh and blood in all its shortcomings, in fact, beginning with its shortcomings. Do these things humbly as you magnify and make great your God. For the mighty one has done great things for you!
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
61:1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
61:2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
61:3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
61:8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
61:9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”