By Jan Johnson
If you were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved in a venture that would change the world, how would you respond? Would you hesitate as Moses did at the burning bush? Would you agree but then run away as Jonah did? Or might you ask doubtful questions as Gideon did?
When Gabriel visited Mary, announcing to her the parenting mission of all time, Mary asked a few questions and surrendered herself. A little later when her older cousin Elizabeth greeted her as blessed among women, Mary burst forth in a seemingly spontaneous, passionate prayer-song. What sort of teenager was Mary, that she had more to say than “Wow” or “Awesome!”?
Her response, which is called the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), is so magnificent that some folks have doubted an illiterate peasant girl could have composed it. Yet others understand that her song is composed from the words of Hannah’s celebration of Samuel’s birth as well as several psalms (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 38:6; 71:19; 111:9; 103:17; 98:1; 107:9; 98:3; 132:11). In fact, some have wondered if Mary was reading from the Old Testament as she created the song.
They forget that all pious Israelites from their childhood days knew by heart songs from the Old Testament and often sang them in the home circle and at celebrations. Mary was steeped in the poetical literature of her nation, and accordingly her hymn also bears the unmistakable signs of it.1
This first Christmas song ever is a good example of how bringing Scripture into our everyday rhythms—even when mowing the lawn or washing the dishes—can form our thoughts and inner self. In Mary’s case, the language and pattern of Scripture was so embedded in her that it shaped her response to the miraculous event that would change her life (and mine) forever. Mary overflowed with ideas, words, and phrases from these passages that were knit in her soul. Both her song and Hannah’s:
• had a strong sense of personal involvement evidenced by personal pronouns: my soul, my spirit, the Mighty One has done great things for me (Mary); my heart; my mouth; I delight in your deliverance (Hannah).
• focused on God’s greatness: holy is your name (Mary); there is no one holy like the Lord (Hannah).
• looked beyond the singer’s concerns to how God intervenes in the world for the hopeless: he has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty (Mary). He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap (Hannah).
Mary not only got the words right, but she also understood the heart of God about her circumstances. Others no doubt viewed Mary’s circumstances—unmarried but pregnant—as problematic. Mary did not. Instead her song was filled with words of trust: “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
Mary’s song also shows that she did not mechanically memorize Hannah’s song and the psalm fragments—the flowing composition indicates she knew the passages by heart. Because the Spirit-drenched words had molded her thoughts and conversation with God, she belted out these words as if they were her own. She did not perform them. She was not trying to be spiritual or impress anyone.
She had spent years letting God’s ideas in Hannah’s words cultivate her heart, so the words and ideas were now hers. All this treasuring and pondering of ancient words trained her well to ponder later the words and actions of Jesus (Luke 2:19, 51).
How do we learn to respond to the situations in life like Mary did—with the heart and thoughts of God? By entering into passages of Scripture and letting them become part of us.
Such absorption of God’s thoughts involves a variety of spiritual disciplines. When our spirituality is a relational process rather than a checklist of good things to do, these practices are engaging and even fun, not laborious. They become our way of “hanging out” with God. Here’s how the process works.
• Studying the passage helps us discuss the background and circumstances of the passage. We establish meaning and connections with characters and concepts. Concentrating on words and phrases helps us understand them.
• Meditating on the passage helps us take God’s ideas deep into our hearts. We hold the words on our tongue as we would savor a piece of candy. We picture ourselves in the person’s circumstances or ask why the words meant what they did to the speaker. Mary must have often put herself in Hannah’s place.
• Praying the passage helps us respond to this transcendent God who speaks to us. We personalize the words of Scripture until they express our deepest self.
• Memorizing the passage can make it easier to meditate on it because it will always be handy.
Many people struggle to memorize Scripture or have tried it and become turned off because it seemed like such work. So, start by not memorizing at all. Instead, study and meditate on the passage for at least a month. (Try passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 or Psalm 23 instead of isolated and unrelated verses.) Cut a passage up and examine it as if it were a piece of candy. Outline it or find the words that connect with each other. Pick out the words that jump out at you and rest in them.
As we study and meditate, we let the words and ideas move us deeply by pondering them. We find we have phrases and verses memorized before even trying.
In this way, the words, phrases, and ideas become part of our very soul.
Its very contours become the contours of our thoughts, words and hopes. This is beyond the stage where Scripture is used to extract comforting verses or even “principles of living.” [God, in the form of] Scripture becomes our most engaging conversation partner.2
At that rate, we’re likely to spontaneously respond with words that bless and motivate.
1Norval Geldenhuys, The New International Commentary on the New Testament—The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 85.
2Glandion Carney and William Long, Yearning Minds and Burning Hearts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 68.
Jan Johnson is the author of When the Soul Listens, Enjoying the Presence of God, and the Spiritual Disciplines Bible studies (www.janjohnson.org). Also a speaker and spiritual director, she lives in Simi Valley, California.