Mary sings the Magnificat

Luke 1:46-56

46 And Mary said,“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.


That Luke fashioned or preserved traditions regarding Mary was inspired, considering how infrequently she otherwise appears in the New Testament outside of John. Mark, of course, skips the birth of Jesus altogether, and Mark’s Jesus seems indifferent to his mother when she shows up with his brothers in chapter three. As for Matthew, his Mary is mute. Not a word leaves her lips. She is present, but silent as the night in a certain beloved carol. For his part, Paul thinks it worth remarking that God’s Son was “born of a woman,” but he never bothers to mention her name.

Mary, despised and rejected, is favored by God and will bring the Messiah to birth. And so, she sings. The Magnificat, the song of Mary, is actually a response to Elizabeth’s words. After hearing what Elizabeth has said about her and her child, Mary responds in verse

What is more, Mary sings not just a solo aria about her own destiny, but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in the land. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and their wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way. Like John the Baptist, Mary prophesies deliverance; she prophesies about a way that is coming in the wilderness of injustice. She sings of a God who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”; who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”; who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She exults in the God of Abraham; she exalts the God of Jesus Christ. Here at the beginning, Mary rejoices in God’s destiny — for her, and for a world turned upside down.

Mary, after all, is a model of faith. If her son will later function as the “second Adam” in the temptation in the wilderness, Mary appears here as something of a “second Eve,” representing all humanity in her faithful embrace of her role in God’s plan of salvation. Luke constructs his scenes with care, contrasting this poor (“lowly” does not simply denote humility), unknown, and unremarkable teenage girl with Zechariah the priest, in that though also struck with wonder, Mary trusts rather than doubts the angel’s prophecy.

At the same time, one might move in the direction of emphasizing the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, who chooses ordinary Mary though whom to do extraordinary things. This is the God of reversals, the one who regularly shows up where we least expect God to be – manger, cross, vulnerability, suffering – in order to scatter the proud, exalt the lowly, satisfy the hungry, and send the rich away empty. Mary’s God is a God of justice and compassion, the One who hears the cry of the oppressed and despondent of all generations and responds, and so also deserves our attention.

At the heart of this momentous event, the child Mary is singing a song about a child. However, more than just being a song of a child about a child, this song is a call to each of us who desire to be followers of Christ, leading us toward becoming more childlike in our responses and relationship with our Creator.

Importance – Mary’s response is strong, powerful, and prophetic. She sings a song that confidently loops her own personal experience into the larger narrative of God’s power and love—past, present, and future.

“Mary’s words are at once historical and timeless, courageous and faithful. She is exactly the person the Son of God needs to help him grow into the full stature of humanity” – The Rev. William Lupfer Rector of Trinity Wall Street. 

4 Parts

The name Magnificat comes from the first word in the Latin Vulgate translation of this song, “magnify” or “glorify.”  It is a lyrical poem similar to the Psalms.

Most probably a compilation of phrases from the Psalms, various Old Testament prophetic books, and Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel ( My heart exults in the Lord my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies,  because I rejoice in my victory.”, the Magnificat has been part of Christian liturgy at least since the time of Saint Benedict in the fifth and sixth centuries. In the Eastern Church it is often used in the morning office, while in the West it is primarily recited during vespers or evening prayer. Within the Anglican / Episcopal Church, it is one of the canticles read or sung at Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. It is also a part of Advent 4.

Part 1 – 46-47

46 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

-Glorifies->”Magnify” – ‘Magnify’ means literally to ‘make great’, that is to lift it up, to, as St. Paul says, make it the name above all other names. So her soul sings out her thankfulness to God for this great gift, to her and to us all

Augustine wrote that what the Lord magnified in her was, that she did the will of the Father, not that flesh gave birth to flesh.

– Mary is poor — dirt poor. She is poor and pregnant and unmarried. She is in a mess. But she sings!

– Mary, despised and rejected, is favored by God and will bring the Messiah to birth. And so, she sings.

Part 2 -48-49

48       for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

These particular verses express Mary’s gratitude for the outpouring of God’s special favor upon her. 

She is giving us what is called in literature a contrasted parallelism. First, Mary speaks of her “humble” state, and classifies herself a servant. Yet in the next verse she sings about the “great” things God has done for her, that God has given.

The terms “humble” or “low estate” at that time had the connotation of poverty, ” both economical and societal. In other words, Mary is drawing our attention to her state of powerlessness and maybe even cultural oppression. She was very young,  poor, pregnant, unmarried and came from Nazareth, a town of negative reputation, considered entirely unimportant.

Additionally, she was also a woman — a characteristic that in her day the religious leaders would view as making an individual unlikely to be used or chosen by God. In his morning prayers a Jewish man would thank God he was not made “a gentile, slave, or woman.”

Perhaps this is why Luke gives women a very significant place in his gospel account: Luke sees women as full recipients of Gods love, and therefore writes about many of them.

He is the one who tells of the sisters Mary and Martha, of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, the widow of Nain, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, the crippled woman Jesus healed, the widow who gave all she had into the temple treasury, and the women who lamented for Jesus as he went to the cross. It is in Luke’s gospel that we see women as subjects in some of Jesus’ parables, such as in the stories of the lost coin and the unjust judge. Luke, a gentile (that is, a non-Jew), was possibly from Macedonia, where women held a more emancipated position, and therefore he attempts to portray God’s perspective of equality in his narrative of Christ s life. However, nowhere is this more evident than in Luke’s nativity narrative, where he centers the story completely around Mary, including the stories of Elizabeth her relative and Anna the prophetess in the temple. In contrast, the other primary nativity narrative, given to us by Matthew, focuses the story around Joseph.

Mary’s song emphasizes Gods incredible gift to her in spite of her vulnerable state and feeling of low importance. God, knowing her lowliness, bestowed on her the inestimable privilege that in her womb the Incarnation happens. In fact, she is glorying in it all; it is as if she is even boasting, saying, “He has chosen me for this honor, despite my poverty, obscurity, unimportance, and lowliness. Mary clearly knows how to receive from God, regardless of any feeling on her part of “undeservedness.”

Note the connections as we move through the song: personal joy (47), personal call and blessedness (48), personal divine encounter with the holy one

There is precedent in Old Testament tradition for unborn children to provide clues to God’s work in the world (Gen 25:22-23)

My soul. My spirit. My Savior. The word, “my,” is intensely personal.

When a person’s heart is filled with joy because of the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ, such a heart overflows with praise of God. This is one of the first stories in the Gospel where a person’s heart is filled with joy and begins to praise God. This is precisely what God wants to happen to us and in us.

This song also expresses their experience with the God who shows might and power through mercy.

Certainly one characteristic of children is that they know how to accept a gift, and this is never more evident than during the Christmas season. Most children will accept the most extravagant gifts simply because they are given to them

Mary’s song demonstrates that she also knew how to receive, and that she did not let all her “background” or baggage get in the way of embracing the good gifts God had for her

The spiritual theme of the Advent and Christmas seasons relates to the giving of ourselves anew to God. But perhaps even more profoundly, these seasons are about receiving from God. Mary reminds us that regardless of our abilities or inabilities, our background and past mistakes, our weaknesses, struggles, and doubts, nothing limits or prevents God from giving to us. Mary’s song infers that, paradoxically, it is almost because of these things that God gives to us all the more. Mary s childlike challenge to us m this season is to come with open hands and let God give God’s gifts to each of us anew, albeit in different ways, with different wrappings

God didn’t chose the beauty queen of Ballard; God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus.

Part 3 – 50-53

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

The context of the story is the vision of change and transformation  The mercy “divine compassion” for all who fear God (50), divine transformation on a wider front, deposing the powers and lifting the fallen (51-55).

Notice that the verbs in Mary’s song are in the past tense. Mary recognizes that she has been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed and downtrodden since the days of Egypt, the one who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case, we should be clear, does not signify that all Mary sings of has been accomplished, but rather describes God’s characteristic activity and acknowledges that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.

One of the most important themes of the New Testament is that God chooses the lowly to accomplish the divine purpose.

v50. Mary now affirms that God’s kindness extends to all who reverence him. The word “fear” means respect rather than scared. Fear of God is “the Old Testament description of piety.”

What is more, Mary sings not just a solo aria about her own destiny, but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in the land. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and their wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way.

Like John the Baptist, Mary prophesies deliverance; she prophesies about a way that is coming in the wilderness of injustice. She sings of a God who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”; who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”; who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She exults in the God of Abraham; she exalts the God of Jesus Christ. Here at the beginning, Mary rejoices in God’s destiny — for her, and for a world turned upside down.

The Magnificat continues the theme of deliverance and liberation found in the Exodus, echoing and projecting into the future the words, “Let my people go!” It evokes Jeremiah’s revolutionary prophecy when he proclaimed that God had appointed him to “pluck up and break down.”

Mary’s song continues with her singing at the top of her voice:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

Arm- He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

Moving from the personal to the political–or, to put it another way, moving from what God has done for her to what God has done for all humanity–Mary begins by invoking God’s powerful arm.  God’s powerful arm is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament, and especially in Exodus 6 (1, 6) and Exodus 15 (6).  In the use of this phrase, Mary is recalling God’s specific action of leading the Hebrew slaves to freedom, and hailing that power in Israel’s current situation of oppression and tyranny.

Rulers –He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

The Magnificat was one of the foundational texts used by those who began the liberation theology movement in Latin America, justifying revolution and the use of military power to overthrow unjust governments and to bring justice and equality in the name of Christ. And it is in this context that Mary refers to God as a Savior who remembers “to be merciful.”

The text also played a role in the life of martyr Jonathan M. Daniels who was cut down during the Selma unrest in 1965.  Just after the  “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, March 7. He wrote the following:  “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. “He hath showed strength with his arm.” As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment” that would, in retrospect, remind me of others–particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.

Daniels’ life showed a pattern of putting himself in the place of others who were defenseless and in need. The pattern was evident even at VMI, where as an upperclassman he was known to have compassion on and defend first-year cadets as they endured the brutal hazing of the VMI “Rat Line.” During seminary he went beyond the call of duty in his field work study in Providence RI he gave up his entire weekend to tutor black children.

His decision to go to Selma, though it perhaps took some people by surprise, was really just his compassion expanding in a greater circle. When the initial fervor of the Selma marches faded and most of the white northerners had returned to the safety and routines of their homes, Jonathan looked at the local poor black activists still fighting and risking their livelihoods and lives, and realized he could not abandon them.

When Mary sang, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” she revealed the complete reversal of fortunes that will accompany God’s final triumph—the powerful and the rich will exchange places with the powerless and the poor.

Jesus’ teaching conveyed a harsh judgment against those who use power and wealth to control others and ignore the pain of oppression and hopeless¬ness; it also, like Mary, painted a picture of hope as to what the world could be

Most of us cannot escape the dark side of life as easily as the rich man ; in Jesus’ parable. The media bombards us relentlessly with accounts of crime, drought, famine, civil wars, the plight of refugees, and economic recession. At the same time, we lose track of how beautiful the world can be. Advent provides  that reminder. Advent promises us that a new world order is coming. Christ has  come to pick up the fragmented pieces of our lives and, in his healing hands, / make those lives whole and meaningful again.

The Advent message predicts a future of freedom and hope and also speaks to those of us who have food, education, and secure employment, revealing our need for release from the stranglehold of a lifestyle in which our possessions control us. It speaks deliverance to those in poverty as well. Jesus lives among us to bring the hope of freedom to everyone who seeks deliverance from oppression and bondage, to those who have much and those who have nothing. Christmas comes to where we are.

The Great Reversal 

The coming of the kingdom serves to reverse the perceived standing of mankind before God. Those favored with power, wealth, status, the seemingly righteous before God, …. they will be brought low (“put down”). The “humble”, lost, broken, “poor”, the outcasts from God’s mercy, … they are lifted up (“exalted”). This great reversal, which achieves the redemption of the lost, is best taken as a present reality. In typical prophetic style, God’s future intentions are proclaimed as already accomplished; God’s Word is as good as done.

Throughout Luke, the proud, powerful, and rich are the opponents of Jesus.  They are portrayed as people who look to enhance their own social honor and prestige, and as people who are indifferent to those lower on the social ladder.  In Mary’s child, God has intervened on behalf of the “lowly” and the “hungry.”  God lifts them up, but “scattered the proud ones,” “destroyed the powerful ones,” and “sent away empty” the rich.

In essence, Mary is singing about a new way forward, or more accurately about following a new way. The words of Mary’s song speak of a Messiah coming to bring about a complete reversal of human values. This Messiah, this Christ, will demonstrate that it isn’t the proud or mighty or rich who have the last word. There is even a revolutionary note about filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty.

Mary’s song is one where a young girl rejoices that despite being lowly “the humble and meek” she will be have a part of redeeming mankind. She understands that she is now personally caught up in the larger story of God acting on God’s passion for the plight of the weak, the hungry, the oppressed, the lowly. She is now to be a partner in God’s work of liberation and redemption. She knows that God consistently uses the least likely, the least powerful, to be instruments of God’s will.

During Mary’s time, the religious world view accepted that the rich would be well cared for by God, but that the poor must expect to be hungry.

While the Magnificat is lovely, it is extraordinarily powerful because it speaks of total trust in God, which often quite naturally leads to following an unfamiliar way. Within the child-self that is part of us all, there is perhaps nothing more precious than the fathomless capacity to trust.

This Advent and Christmas, as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the coming of Christ, we are all called to be children once again through this story of all stories. And the Magnificat reminds us that there dwells in the heart of each and every one of us a song, music that we alone know how to sing and play, about believing God, and receiving from God, and trusting in God beyond measure.

Part 4  54-56

54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home

Mary ends by linking the deliverance of Israel to the promise made to Abraham by God. The New Testament writers see this promise fulfilled in Jesus, the “servant Israel.” Those who are “in Christ” become the “servant Israel”, children of Abraham through faith rather than natural descent.

v  54-55 recall that he has fulfilled, and continues to fulfill, his promises to the patriarchs.

v 56. Mary stays with Elizabeth for some “three months”, possibly until John’s birth.

Mary is in effect simply echoing a previous commitment she made to the angel Gabriel when she responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” 

In calling herself “the Lord’s servant,” she is meaning literally a “bonded servant” to God. Submitting to God’s way of doing things, Mary becomes the first disciple of the one she is carrying within her. Luke in his gospel portrays her as the ultimate example of following God, for she expresses her complete commitment, which at its core entails total trust in God.

As Mary was not yet fully married, but only betrothed, to Joseph her husband-to-be, choosing to believe this preposterous story could easily have resulted in great difficulty for her personally. She was unsure of Joseph’s reaction, and she probably knew that in that time of religious legalism it was quite possible that the death penalty would be exercised against her for marital unfaithfulness. However, in spite of the potential consequences, Mary agreed to go along with the angels proposal in simple trust, and that trust in God led her to follow a new way—God s way —of approaching life and its challenges. Children, perhaps more than anyone else, know how to trust; consequently, they are more easily able to follow completely those they trust.

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