The Magnificat

mary-and-elizabeth-rejoiceAs mentioned in a previous post, this coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Assumption. The gospel is taken from the Infancy Narratives of Luke’s Gospel. The first part of the gospel is traditionally known as the Visitation; the second is the spontaneous prayer of Mary called the Magnificat.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. 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. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Mary’s canticle, traditionally called the Magnificat because of its first word in Latin translation, is a mosaic of Old Testament quotations and allusions interpreting the coming of Jesus. The hymn is strongly influenced by the canticle sung by Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, after the birth of her son through divine intervention (1 Sam 2:1–10). Both canticles see these actions of God as part of a longstanding process of overthrowing proud human expectations and exalting the lowly. Mary’s word for it is “mercy.”

The Magnificat is, at its core, praise for God’s Word to Mary (cf. 1:46-49). Mary’s poetic outburst echoes Old Testament language with a perspective that sees the present in light of God’s consistent activity throughout time. Her praise is personal–her soul and spirit offer praise. She glorifies the Lord, which means her words acknowledge his goodness and bring attention to him like a huge neon light shining out from a building (Ps 34:3; 69:30). She makes his name great. She approaches him recognizing her humble state as his servant and thus acknowledging him as sovereign Master (see also v. 38; 2 Kings 14:26; Ps 9:11-14; 25:16-18). Yet though she addresses God as the Mighty One (Deut 10:21; 34:11; Ps 44:4-8; 89:8-10; 111:2, 9; Zeph 3:17), she knows that she has nothing to fear from his power, because he also is her Savior (Ps 25:5-6; Is 12:2; Mic 7:7). All these titles serve to show Mary’s humble spirit. Her humble perspective forms the basis of her gratitude. The exemplary character of Mary grows out of her understanding of God’s character. God owes her nothing; she owes God everything. All the good things that come from his hand are acts of grace.

Despite her humble position, she will be honored by all generations. Here is the reason for both her honor and her praise – God the Almighty has done great things on her behalf. Generations will see her as an example of a simple human touched by divine power and presence. But it is God who is unique, as her declaration of his holiness makes clear. He is the one “set apart” who is worthy of praise. For her, his name is wonderful because his character is true.

The Magnificat is also praise for God’s acts to all (1:50-53). Mary generalizes her praise: God’s mercy extends to those who fear him. This description is important in setting the context of the hymn’s statements. It is the righteous, those who look and turn to God, who are the objects of his blessing. Though the blessings of verses 50-53 come to those in need, they are not a carte blanche offer to all the poor and hungry, but only to those who look to God for care. God’s mercy shows his “loyal love” or hesed. Such love is faithful as well as gracious (Ps 103:2-6, 8-11, 13, 17). Loyal love is the hymn’s basic theme, and God’s treatment of Mary is but one example.

So God will deal with the proud. His arm will be raised against them (Deut 4:34; Ps 44:3; 89:13; 118:15). The promise of God’s judgment here recalls the exodus, when God exercised his power in total judgment (Ex 6:1, 6; Deut 3:24; 7:19). Whatever earthly authority exists, it is nothing before the mighty, decisive exercise of divine authority. He has brought down rulers (Ps 68:1; 89:10) but has lifted up the humble (1 Sam 2:7; Ps 147:6). He has filled the hungry with good things (1 Sam 2:5; Ps 107:9; 146:7) but has sent the rich away empty (1 Sam 2:5; Job 15:29; Jer 17:11). Here is God working on behalf of the pious downtrodden, a group the Old Testament called the anawim (Ps 9:11-12, 17-20; 10:1-4; 12:1-5; 18:25-29).

These verses express the traditional Jewish hope of vindication in the face of oppression at the hands of foreign, pagan rulers (1:71-75 is similar; in Judaism, see Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18). Mary’s remarks are often misinterpreted in two directions. Some see them solely as a reference to God’s defense of all the poor, all the hungry. This does not fully integrate the spiritual dimension present throughout the hymn, not to mention the national character of the hope expressed in verses 54-55. On the other hand, some want to dilute the references to the poor and hungry altogether and speak only of the poor and hungry in spirit. This also undercuts the passage’s force. The spirit of this text is reflected in other New Testament texts (1 Cor 1:25-31; Jas 2:5). Often it is those in need who are the most spiritually sensitive to God and who are gifted with faith by him. God promises them that despite their current deprivation, they will experience great reward in the future.

Luke raises a theme here that he will return to again and again: God’s desire to minister to the poor. Luke will stress a ministry of social concern for those in need and warn those who are wealthy not to hoard what God has given to them (6:20-26; 7:22-23; 12:13-21; 14:12-14; 16:14-29). He warns about a reversal of roles in the judgment for those who do not hear this admonition.

The Magnificat is also praise for God’s acts for his people, Israel (1:54-56). God is acting for his people, Israel. God’s actions reflect his mercy. He committed himself to such loyalty and compassion when he made promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). One of the lessons of the infancy section is that God keeps his word, including the promises made to the nation of Israel. Mary knows that the promises of God abide, and this is evident in her praise. God’s loyal love is central to the hope and assurance of those to whom God has made himself known.

Israel is called his servant. This reference recalls a major motif from Isaiah (Is 41:8-9; 42:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). Later Luke will describe Jesus in terms of the Servant (Lk 22:37; Acts 8:32-33). Even later in Acts, Paul and Barnabas note this calling to serve as “light for the Gentiles” (Acts 13:47). The various points of connection to the Servant concept mark this as a pattern prophecy: the role God had designed for Israel is fulfilled in the regal representative of the nation and in those who are identified with him.

Though Luke will develop the concept of God’s constant care for Israel according to covenant promise, his portrayal of Mary here shows a woman confident that God will care for a remnant in his nation. They, like she, will see the Lord’s powerful hand move on their behalf. God’s loyal love and the truthfulness of his holy character make such assurance and hope possible. Even more amazing is what the progress of Luke’s story reveals. Others who were not originally included in the promise, namely Gentiles, will come to share in this hope and will benefit from the vindication described here. In fact, it is quite likely that Theophilus himself (to whom the Gospel of Luke is addressed) is one of these additional beneficiaries, along with many others after him who have come to fear the Lord.

In fact, the two points of assurance are linked. Since God remembers the loyal love promised in covenant to Israel, Theophilus can be assured that God will remember his promises to this Gentile believer. God’s care for one promise reinforces the other.

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