Magnifying Glass Ethics

by Aaron Petty

What’s your favorite Christmas song? Is it the triumphant “Joy to the World,” or the quaint “Silent Night”? Maybe you’re a traditionalist and love Handel’s “Messiah.” Or, you might be ashamed (or proud) to admit that it’s Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Whatever your choice, songs are an essential part of the season.

In Luke 1, Mary is informed that she has been chosen to bear the Messiah. This news, delivered by an angel, must have been both exciting and terrifying for her. In spite of this, she delivers a song of praise in response, which we might consider the first Christmas song. Mary’s Song reveals the posture of her heart, and, I argue, the heart of what it means to be Christian.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

Notice two verbs in Mary’s first verse: magnify and rejoice. The first, magnify, is the word from which “Magnificat,” the traditional name for Mary’s Song, derives. 

What does it mean to magnify? Take a magnifying glass. What makes it good? A good magnifying glass is not like jewelry. The value of jewelry comes from the purity of its metal and the size of its crystals; good jewelry causes you to notice it. A good magnifying glass, however, is the one you notice the least. Properly functioning, it allows you to more deeply appreciate the details of something else. In fact, the more you notice the magnifying glass, the worse it is. Perhaps it is cracked, or smudged, or has an impurity in its glass. Such flaws distract from the object being observed and reduce the value of the magnifying glass.

Mary opens her prayer with this statement intentionally. She positions herself like a magnifying glass. Her role is not to be noticed, it is to make God greater. It is difficult to overstate how radically selfless her prayer is. If I were directly given a similarly challenging task by God, I suspect that my inclination would be to focus on myself. I would assess my capabilities and compare them to the requirements of the task. My resulting prayer would likely be to ask God for strength, or courage, or humility, or whatever it is that I lack. Such prayers are not misguided. Indeed, Mary noticed her own “humble estate” in the face of a call from God. However, her instinct is not first to ask for help, but to simply marvel at who God is. This, I believe, should guide all Christians. Her prayer progresses through different focal points and magnifies God in each of them.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

In this portion, Mary explores the personal nature of God’s salvation. She is presenting something of a testimony here. Though she does not go into detail about her life, she does make the rhetorical move from her personal experience to the goodness of God. This demonstrates the power of humility and testimony to magnify God. And make no mistake: Mary’s humility does not spring from any misunderstanding of her situation, but from a deep understanding. She states outright that she will be uniquely remembered for all of history. However, rather than lose herself in the glory bestowed upon her, she is enamored with the Giver of the glory and magnifies Him. 

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Here, Mary recounts God’s action in history. Notice that at this point, Mary has shifted her focus completely away from herself. She focuses entirely on the past, and through this magnifies God. Her description does exactly what magnification is supposed to do. Like a magnifying glass, it increases the resolution of an aspect of God’s character: His uplifting of the lowly (see Psalm 138:6). God chooses the person you’d least expect. This is a remarkably consistent theme throughout the Bible. God chose Jacob, not Esau, to continue the messianic line (Genesis 27). This line continued through Leah, not through Jacob’s beloved Rachel (Genesis 29-30). It was David, not a mighty warrior, who defeated the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17). And, most recently to Mary, God chose her to bear His Son. He chose for this Son to be born in a stable, not a palace. He chose for Him to come not in mighty Rome, but in the backwater town of Bethlehem, to the occupied nation of Israel. God chose to announce Christ’s birth first to shepherds, not the elite. God consistently chooses to uplift the lowly in society to display His greatness, and Mary recognizes this and magnifies it.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

To end her song, Mary once again magnifies God. In this section, she emphasizes the importance of God’s gift of the Messiah to Israel. Just as He has been faithful to her, His servant, He has been faithful and kept His promise of salvation to His servant, Israel. Mary is able to see the big picture of God’s plan, that her Son, the Savior of the world, is the one promised to Abraham hundreds of years before.

This Advent, orient your heart as Mary does. Magnify God. Tell your story and how God has been at work in you. Remind those around you of the great things that God has done. Look forward in hope to what He will do.

Aaron Petty is a Senior at Duke University studying Chemistry and Biochemistry.

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