The Magnificat

This is the third article in a series considering what the Bible teaches about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We considered Gabriel’s appearance to Mary to announce the birth of Christ (Luke 1.26-38) and Elizabeth’s words to Mary under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.39-45). Today, we will consider Mary’s response in Luke 1.46-55. Her hymn of praise is commonly known as the Magnificat, the first word of the hymn in Latin.

Luke gives Mary’s hymn pride of place in his account of Jesus’ life. He first uses the hymn to introduce the other hymns in the birth narrative. Then, he uses it to introduce the central themes of Jesus’ ministry, which is to say that one can understand the entire Gospel of Luke in terms of Mary’s words.

Luke uses Mary’s hymn to set the tone for the other three hymns in his birth narrative. Last week, we noted that Mary’s statement, “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” redounds to God’s glory, “for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” In other words, to confess Mary’s blessedness is to confess the glory of God who blessed her. Mary points to God, as do all the faithful. Thus, the first line of Mary’s hymn, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” is mirrored in the first lines of the other three hymns of Luke’s birth narrative: Zechariah’s (1.68-79), “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;” the angels’ (2.14), “Glory to God in the highest;” and Simeon’s (2.29-32), “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” Luke has Mary set the pattern and tone.

Mary’s hymn also lays the groundwork for the rest of Luke’s gospel. Jesus begins His public ministry in Luke 4.16-27 by reading from Isaiah 61, and His message sounds strikingly like Mary’s hymn: He has come “to proclaim good news to the poor, …to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Here’s Mary, proclaiming the same things three chapters earlier: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…. 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.”

Like her Son, Mary has a keen understanding of the way that God is fulfilling the promises that He made in the Law and the Prophets. She understands from the Law that God’s promise to Abraham points to Jesus (cf. Gen 17.19, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him”), decades before Paul makes the same point in Gal 3.16. She understands from the prophets that God’s kingdom consists in dramatic reversals of fortune—”Things shall not remain as they are. Exalt that which is low, and bring low that which is exalted” (Ezk 21.26)—not in empowering the earthly kingdom of Israel in earthly ways.

Mary’s hymn works as a double introduction in Luke’s gospel because Mary, Zechariah, the angels, Simeon, and Jesus are all proclaiming the same thing: the arrival of God’s kingdom. Jesus demonstrates the nature of the kingdom by ministering to the humble and the outcast—lepers, tax collectors, widows, adulteresses, and blind beggars—and He ushers the kingdom in by dying as a criminal. In her hymn, Mary points the way forward to her Son and to His work, just as she points to the glory of the Father. In a sense, she begins the work of John the Baptist while John is still in the womb.

Consider how practically no one in the gospels understands Jesus, the nature of His work, or the nature of God’s kingdom. Even His own apostles fail to understand Him properly until He opens their minds to the Scriptures after His resurrection (Luke 24.45). But Mary is a veritable prodigy, one of the select few (John the Baptist is another) to possess even a rudimentary understanding of these things, despite her being a young woman (and yes, it would shock a first-century audience to learn that a woman had such a firm grasp of theology, just as the young Jesus shocked everyone in the Temple with His understanding of the Father in Luke 2.47).

We close by noting one other extraordinary quality to Mary’s knowledge. Consider Zechariah’s hymn in Luke 1.68-79. It is the sort of hymn that one might expect from an educated priest like Zechariah. Mary produces a similar hymn with no such education (nor with the luxury of her own printed Bible). Here’s the real shocker: Luke records that the Holy Spirit inspired Zechariah to offer his hymn (Luke 1.67), just as the Spirit inspired the words of Elizabeth and Simeon. Luke provides no such notice for Mary. So how did Mary come up with her hymn? Luke doesn’t say. He leaves us to think that maybe she’s just that good.

Image: Virgin Mary (ca. 1640-1650), Sassoferrato

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