Simbang Gabi Homilies: Day 8 with Fr. Johnny Go, SJ

Posted on December 23, 2011

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There’s a saying that goes: “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” In our Gospel reading this evening, we have a pregnant woman singing, so that got me thinking.

Mary sings her magnificent song, the Magnificat, when she sees for herself the sign promised to her by the angel during the Annunciation. Her elderly cousin Elizabeth, long reviled by neighbors as barren, is now mysteriously, finally, wonderfully heavy with child. Since Mary is herself bearing her child, it all really makes a pretty strange scene — a meeting between the two women least likely in all of Palestine to be pregnant because on the one hand, you have an aging barren woman Elizabeth, and on the other, her cousin Mary, a virgin probably no more than 15 years old. And here they are, both caught by surprise, staring wide-eyed at each other’s unexpected pregnancy.

And as if this wasn’t strange enough, before we know it, the entire scene turns into a virtual song-and-dance number. Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb: John the Baptist, no more than a fetus, does a mean pasodoble, and as if right on cue, Mary breaks into song.

This evening we pause and marvel at this scene of a pregnant virgin singing. What does she sing about? The Magnificat is no gentle, consoling lullaby, as we would have expected this Christmas season. Instead it’s a feisty and radical song of prophecy.

But I have to confess: I have a couple of problems with the song.

My first problem is, of all things, a verb — the one found right in the very first line, which goes: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” I mean, what kind of a verb is “magnify”? “To magnify” literally means “to enlarge or to expand.” But how can you possibly make God bigger or more than He already is if He’s Infinite and Almighty in the first place? It doesn’t seem to make sense — maybe that’s why the line is more often translated figuratively as “to proclaim the goodness of the Lord” or “to praise God.” That’s so much easier to understand because certainly Mary praised God and proclaimed His goodness through her “Yes” and through her entire life. And like Mary, all of us can, in that same sense, magnify God.

Problem solved, right?

Maybe not. You see, there’s something about the word “magnify” that intrigues me. What if the evangelist had a reason for deliberately choosing that word among all the other possible simpler alternatives? Maybe there is a hidden metaphor in this word, unintended perhaps but profound. I wonder: What would happen, for example, if we compare Mary to a magnifying glass?

A magnifying glass doesn’t actually make things bigger, but only makes them appear bigger. So maybe like a magnifying glass, Mary doesn’t actually make God greater and larger because no one can ever really do that to God, but she makes God appear greater and appear larger. And when you think about it, that’s no small matter because as we know, too often it’s not easy to see God’s greatness and largeness given our distracted and cluttered lives in this wounded and broken world of ours. And maybe Mary magnifies God the way a magnifying glass works: The closer the magnifying glass gets to something, the larger it seems. So my theory is that Mary teaches us that we can make God far more visible and far more obvious precisely by sticking as close to Him as possible.

Mary’s song invites us to make God’s presence less hidden and more obvious in this world of ours by drawing nearer to Him. The closer we get to God, the more visible and the more obvious He will become to others. Like Mary, we all of us can and should do what we can to magnify the Lord — literally.

But I have a second issue with the Magnificat, and it has to do with the grammar. The song speaks of a radical reversal of fortune in an unjust world: how God will bring down the powerful, raise up the lowly, feed the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. In other words, a world turned upside down, where as Jesus Himself later puts it: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” That’s a great promise, something that we today, even over 2000 years later, continue to hope for and pray for. But notice how the grammatical tenses of the words seem to be all wrong. They’re all in the past tense — or for the more obsessive-compulsive grammar cops among us, they’re all in the present perfect tense — as if they’ve all already happened. Listen:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.

And so on.

What Mary enumerates in her song are accomplishments of her unborn Child. These were no past events, and even now, 2,000 years later, their consequences have yet to be completely felt: The proud haven’t been scattered, nor the powerful brought down. The lowly haven’t been lifted up, or the rich sent away empty, and the hungry certainly have not been filled with good things. This promised reversal of the status quo — well, we’re still sort of holding our breath for its fulfillment.

But then again, could it be that the evangelist’s choice of the tenses, just like the verb “magnify,” is actually deliberate and for us tonight, instructive? Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words: “Blessed is she who believed.” Maybe Mary is showing us what faith really involves: To believe the fulfillment of a promise even before it actually happens. As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, Mary utters her prophecies “as if they were already history.” But Mary does more: She acts as if these prophecies have already happened, and in doing so, she becomes an instrument that helps fulfill the prophecies.

I suspect Mary’s Magnificat could also very well be a challenge to faith: To act in our lives as if God’s Will has already been completely fulfilled, so that like Mary, we too may become instruments in bringing about His Will. This strategy in faith is actually rooted in some pretty sound psychology and comes in quite handy in our everyday life. When we have difficulty loving some people, it will help to act as if we truly love them even if we don’t always feel the love. Before we know it, we will catch ourselves loving them more easily and more naturally. When we have doubts about our faith, it will help to act as if we believe, practicing our faith anyway despite the lingering doubts. Before we know it, we will find ourselves already living out our faith. When we’re brokenhearted and broken down, unsure of survival, it will help to act as if we are already healing and before we know it, we will already have been healed.

All this, of course, is particularly relevant for us Filipinos this Christmas. For us, Christmas 2011 will always be tinted with the blood and tears of our suffering brothers and sisters in the Visayas and especially North Mindanao. Over the weekend, what has been described as the world’s deadliest storm this year snuck into the country when our people were least ready for it, resulting in over a thousand people dead and hundreds still missing. It didn’t help that the worst-stricken areas in the country were the least accustomed to typhoons: Experts say that Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Misamis all the way to Zamboanga del Norte get a significant storm only once every 12 years.

As we count down to Christmas day, we continue to be stunned by images of morgues and funeral homes overrun with dead bodies. Many of the bodies remain unidentified, unclaimed, and unattended to, given the acute shortage of coffins and cadaver bags. Our hearts are broken, most of all, by images of mothers and fathers looking for missing children, or worse, cradling their dead children in their arms.

Some of us may be thinking: So much for singing! But it is precisely at these times that we, more than ever, need to hear Mary’s song. When Mary sang the Magnificat to Elizabeth, it wasn’t exactly a time for singing and dancing either. It was, in fact, far from the best of times for Mary. Her life was in a mess. She was pregnant and unmarried. She had no idea how the still-unsuspecting Joseph would react to her condition — not to mention her own parents or the villagers notorious for their cruel gossiping.

But sing she did.

It is now, more than ever — in times far from best — that we need to hear Mary’s Magnificat and to sing this inappropriately festive song with her. It is now, more than ever, that we all of us need to magnify God, to make Him more visible and more obvious in these times when we’re most tempted to see His absence rather than His presence. Let us follow Mary’s lead and stick as closely as we possibly can to God because that’s how you magnify Him — by being close to Him.

And most of all, let us believe the way Mary believed. Never mind if the salvation of the world is still unfolding and far from complete. Even here, even now, we need to already act and live our lives as if it’s all already history because that’s how you become an instrument of God—by acting as if it’s all already over.

Remember: The pregnant lady has sung.

(Xavier School president Fr. Johnny Go, SJ, delivered this homily during the Ateneo’s eighth Simbang Gabi at the Church of the Gesu this year. The text of this homily comes from Fr. Johnny’s blog called “Director’s Take.”)

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