“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50).
For my money, the greatest guitar riff of all time is in Steppenwolf’s 1968 recording, “Born to be Wild.” Or maybe “Magic Carpet Ride,” from the same year. You can pick your own favorite, if rock n’ roll is your thing. Great riffing is done in jazz, too: in either case, a riff is a short musical phrase, with improvisation built around it. Riffing allows for the demonstration of technical skill and mastery; in jazz performance, particularly, each instrument gets a chance. A riff sums up what precedes it, and prepares for what follows: at least it does for Steppenwolf.
Our Gospel reading today contains one of the great Scriptural riffs, embedded in the encounter between St. Mary and St. Elizabeth. Here we catch the two women, one to be the mother of John the Baptist, and the other the mother of the Savior, when both women are pregnant and awaiting the birth of their children. The so-called “Song of Mary,” or “Magnificat,” that constitutes a large part of our reading, has a poetic structure, built on the parallelism of Hebrew poetry; and that poetic form caused it to be taken up into the liturgy of the church. There it was set to actual music, and sung to tunes created by composers throughout the centuries that followed.
The “Song of Mary” is an instance of riffing because it takes up the themes of St. Luke’s Gospel, and sums them up in a few verses. It encapsulates the story of Holy Scripture at a crucial point in the narrative, demonstrating God’s mastery of history as he brings all things to fulfillment. That mastery is improvisational, because God is dealing with free creatures, who are all over the place; but it’s also providential, in that God is in control of the story, guiding the composition to its conclusion. In the end, as in any musical piece, it makes sense and holds together, no matter how far the riffing has wandered from the main theme.
In many ways, our Gospel riff this morning sums up what has preceded in the story, and prepares the way for what will follow. It is a pause of sorts, where Mary and Elizabeth are spiritually unpacking the things that have taken place: the archangel Gabriel’s visit, first to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, as he’s serving in the temple in Jerusalem, and then to her cousin Mary in Nazareth. The two women are catching their breath, as they prepare for labor; more profoundly, they are reflecting on what’s happened to them, and what lies ahead. “The Song of Mary” articulates what’s taken place, and points the way forward to the rest of Luke’s Gospel.
Here’s the main theme, the riff in short: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). That’s the short phrase that echoes through the Song. It’s a pivotal point in the story of God’s People. Mercy has been shown to Mary, in that she will become the mother of the Lord. Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…” (Lk. 1:28). “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel continued, “for you have found favor with God” (Lk 1:30). God’s mercy is there, in the present moment of Incarnation, as Mary reflects on the angel’s words to her. “The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk. 1:49).
But mercy had been present all along, in the choosing of Israel to be God’s People. God had seeded this tune throughout the history of Israel, from the call of Abraham onward. God had chosen his family, and continued to show them his mercy, extending his grace and favor to Israel. God sent prophets and kings to recall the People when they wandered. As Mary says, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever” (Lk. 1:54-55). When Mary speaks, she’s summing up the whole past experience of Israel, as well as her own.
“The Song of Mary” also foreshadows the theme that will be taken up by the church that follows in her footsteps. It’s worth noting the way God works. “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” (Lk. 1:52-53). God is in the business of using the poor and humble to work his perfect will. God takes improbable people and things into his service, using what the world despises in order to move the project forward. He brought life out of death, after all, when he raised Jesus Christ from the dead, turning a cross of shame into a blessing for the whole world. That’s how God works.
God’s mercy extends for generations to come, as it says in our reading. Just as God used Mary, a young woman of Nazareth, so he will be using us. This is good news for us at St. Mark’s Church today, as a member of the church reaffirms baptismal vows and receives the laying on of hands. We’re carrying on the generational work of the church, watching the Holy Spirit move the mission and ministry we have received from Christ into the future. We’re inspired by our confirmand’s willingness to step forward and to move us all ahead. This is the longest riff on a theme that anyone has ever heard! We’re experiencing today the truth that God’s mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.