The Song of Mary (Magnificat) - Luke 1:46-55
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, *
he 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 for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission recently wrote a shared statement about Anglican and Roman Catholic views of St. Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Commission writes, “God’s grace calls for and enables human response” (ARCIC, para. 5). In other words, God says yes to us so we can say yes to God.
The Magnificat is sung during the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. John the Baptizer leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greets her. She is inspired to say: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Then the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth with prophecy too She calls Mary, “the mother of my Lord,” perhaps already clued in by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was the Messiah and even God Incarnate.
Then, Mary responds to Elizabeth’s prophecy with her own, very famous prophecy from the Lord. The Song of Mary, also called the “Magnificat,” after its Latin name, or Canticle 15 in our Book of Common Prayer.
The Magnificat is first a song in the tradition of Old Testament Hebrew poetry and worship. Throughout the Bible, when God does something poignant in the world, something that changes the lives of the people of God, the faithful respond with singing. When God says yes to us, we say yes back to God.
So the Magnificat is a song of victory and praise, similar to Hannah’s song when she conceived her son Samuel, or Moses’ Song when he and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and escaped the Egyptian army.
Mary has already proven herself to be a woman of remarkable faith and courage when she accepts the call to be the mother of God. In the Magnificat, she is also revealed as the most powerful prophet in the Bible.
In this Song, Mary preaches to us about the truth of God’s Reign in Christ. She has access to knowledge about the kind of Messiah her Son will become, which is not surprising because Jesus’ character is entirely consistent with the Lord God of Israel as revealed in the Old Testament.
But Mary did not sing this Song because she was a scholar with the best academic knowledge of the Scriptures (she was not). Rather, there was something special, even supernatural about this Song. Mary does not compose it entirely on her own. Mary is “full of grace” and “the Holy Spirit [had come] upon” her. She was inspired and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit of God. By bearing the Word of God in her womb, she was caught up in the dynamic Triune Life of God; she experienced the love and fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and was given insight about God’s plan for salvation.
She is so deeply united with the Incarnate God in her womb, that she cannot help but proclaim The Word of the Lord with her lips. God has set Mary apart for this special purpose in the story of salvation. Through her love for her Son, she becomes the first Christian preacher! Sharing the Good News of God’s Kingdom with her cousin Elizabeth and the Forerunner John the Baptist (in utero).
The Magnificat itself is both a song of praise and lesson. The Song summarizes Jesus’ message of God’s Kingdom by painting a portrait of how the world will be when Christ finally rules as King.
It is about the reversal of our expectations, about God’s surprising, emphatic “yes” to humankind in the face of our many, “no’s.” When we reject one another, Mary preaches, God steps in to restore and heal the broken.
“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.” Mary was a young woman of low status in the eyes of people around her. Because she is lowly and a servant of God, “all generations will call [her] blessed” → God reverses the “no” of the world with a divine “yes.”
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord … He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” The greatness of God is revealed in mercy to sinners and faithfulness to humanity despite our brokenness. These are undeserved gifts. To the unworthy, God shows love and tenderness → God reverses the “no” of human sinfulness with a divine “yes”
“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.” Mary praises God for caring for the needs of the poor and blessing those who suffer in this life. The mighty are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled and the rich receive no more → God reverses the “no” of human society with a divine “yes”
“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 for ever.” Mary speaks for all of Israel and thanks God for remembering the chosen people, for showing mercy in sending the Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of many of God’s promises, including the covenant with “Abraham and his children forever” → God reverses the “no” of human longing with a divine “yes”
The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission summarizes Mary's significance like this:
“The scriptural witness summons all believers in every generation to call Mary ‘blessed’; this Jewish woman of humble status, this daughter of Israel living in hope of justice for the poor, whom God has graced and chosen to become the virgin mother of his Son through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. We are to bless her as the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ who gave her unqualified assent to the fulfilment of God’s saving plan, as the mother who pondered all things in her heart, as the refugee seeking asylum in a foreign land, as the mother pierced by the innocent suffering of her own child, and as the woman to whom Jesus entrusted his friends. We are at one with her and the apostles, as they pray for the outpouring of the Spirit upon the [fledgling] Church, the … [new] family of Christ. And we may even glimpse in her the final destiny of God’s people to share in her son’s victory over the powers of evil and death.” (ARCIC, para. 30)
Mary’s blessedness does not derive from passivity. She is not a symbol of quiet, submissive, mistreated women who must be controlled and dominated by men.
Rather she is blessed because she chooses to have faith and hope in God in a frightening and dangerous circumstance. God says yes to Mary, and Mary responds with a yes to God. The Spirit helps her to see that she lives in a long line of God’s chosen people who are asked to take risks for the sake of God and neighbor. She accepts: “Be it unto me according to your word.” God’s grace working in her empowers her to accept God’s call and strengthens her to endure the difficult journey ahead of her as a single mother who will be accused of infidelity by everyone around her.
In her Song, Mary proclaims that God’s “Yes” extends not only to her, but to all the poor and oppressed who wait for God’s Reign of righteousness and justice. God’s Yes extends even to you and me.
And if God’s Yes comes to us, we too have the opportunity to say yes in return. We are given the chance to respond in faith and hope to the grace God pours out. So let us follow Mary in her faith and hope in Christ. Let us continually pray with her that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
And let us remember that we are not alone in this journey. The same Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Mother of our Lord dwells with us and empowers us to say yes to God and to our neighbor, to follow Christ in faith and hope. And Mary herself has adopted the Church as her family; she is our Mother, eager to pray with and for us to “the Almighty” who does such great things for us. Amen.
The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission [ARCIC], “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ - An Agreed Statement,” The Anglican Communion, published 2 Februrary 2004, accessed 8 December 2016, http://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/105263/mary-grace-and-hope-in-christ_english.pdf.
Sara Miles, “My Soul Proclaims: Submission and Subversion in Mary's Magnificat,” Journey with Jesus, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20071210JJ.shtml