“My soul magnifies the Lord,” said Mary. And during the season of Advent, with the culture all around us screaming about Christmas, most of us are in such a hurry to run by these little stories on our way to get to the manger and the shepherds and the before-Christmas sales and the singing choruses of angels, that we hardly stop to take notice of such a word. Magnify. How is it that Mary came to believe that she could magnify God? Isn’t God already as magnified as he is going to be? Here, the merest teenage girl from a backwater town in ancient Palestine had the temerity to declare that she would magnify the Lord. Is this only hubris? How did she come to possession of such confidence?
The original language of the Gospel is Greek, and the Greek word for “magnify” is much like our English word, with much the same meaning. Its prefix is mega, and as we might suspect from English words that begin with those four letters, it means to make great, to magnify, to extol. Think of the ways we use words with that prefix today: megastar, megahit, megabyte, megalomania, megalopolis, megaphone, megaton, megadose. In each case, we communicate the idea that something very big is involved. In its Latin root, the prefix transforms from mega- to magni-, which adds another whole list of concepts for bigness to our English language: magnanimous, magnificent, magnitude, and — of course — magnify and magnification.
I remember when I was a young boy, we used to use a magnifying glass sometimes to burn a hole through a piece of paper. In fact, as a Boy Scout growing up in the midwest — where there was plenty of sun — many of us carried a small magnifying glass in our bag of essential gear, since it could come in handy for lighting a fire when matches were not available. Think about that magnifying glass for a minute, now. Though it doesn’t really make the light source — the sun— bigger, what it does do is focus the sun’s essence, bring the brightness of the sun to bear in a tiny spot so that its essence can have an even more powerful effect than our normal everyday experience would allow. A piece of paper, left in even a bright sun all day will still not burst into flames. But in just a few seconds, the rays of the sun, focused by a magnifying glass into a tiny area, will bring terrific heat onto a small spot to the degree that it will begin to burn.
The magnifying glass does not make the sun bigger or more effective, it just increases the effect of the greatness that was there all along. Something that magnifies, like a magnifying glass, is not magnificent in itself, in fact it can be quite humble. But the thing magnified is brought to our attention in many cases in such a way that we wonder how we could have missed its presence and its impact before.
“I will magnify the Lord,” Mary said. What does it mean? I think it means at least this: Mary’s magnification of God does not increase God’s size, does not expand God’s care. Mary’s magnification works like that little magnifying glass that costs less than $5. Little, humble, limited as it is, it has the capacity to bring the greatness of the sun to bear, to magnify it, so that it can have tremendous impact where before its impact was unknown. Mary’s willingness to be the bearer of the Messiah meant that a humble, peasant girl from the backwaters of rural Palestine could serve to help make God’s magnificence known across the world.
- Robert J. Elder, from "Magnificent!", First of Three Sermons on the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church. First Presbyterian Church, Salem, Oregon, December 7, 2003.