From Songs in Waiting
The Song of Mary – 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, * 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.”
It is a song that speaks profoundly about being “childlike.” Luke focuses his entire Christmas narrative around the person of Mary, who was probably just a child, a young girl who was perhaps twelve to fourteen years old, as it was customary for Jewish girls to marry just after puberty
In this light, the Christmas story is of a child having The Child
When people begin to bring their children to Jesus for his blessing, the disciples send them away, seeing the children as a waste of his precious time. But Jesus rebukes them, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14), He is saying that the deepest spiritual knowledge, while hidden from the wise and learned, is revealed to children. He even goes so far as to say that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become like children: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus often refers to us all as “children of God”
The name Magnificat comes from the first word in the Latin Vulgate translation of this song, “magnify” or “glorify.” Most probably a compilation of phrases from the Psalms, various Old Testament prophetic books, and Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel, the Magnificat has been part of Christian liturgy at least since the time of Saint Benedict in the fifth and sixth centuries.
The Magnificat has been recited every day for centuries by Christians, chanted by monks, and set to music by composers of every age, perhaps the most famous being Johann Sebastian Bach’s composition, which he wrote for Christmas Day 1725
It is on behalf of this baby that majestic buildings like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris have been constructed and great saints like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa have so wholeheartedly dedicated their lives to the service of God and humankind. It is to the glory of the one whose birth we celebrate that Bach composed, El Greco painted, Augustine of Hippo preached, and Pascal wrote, and because Jesus the Christ was born countless individuals would receive comfort as they went serenely to their martyrdom years after his own death. Knowing all this, it is a deeply moving experience to stand today in Nazareth, in the Church of the Annunciation, the site where it is believed Mary was first confronted by the angel. The lines in the first scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet seem to say it best: “So hallowed and so gracious is the time.”
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. Out of the depth of her joy, Mary sings of the crucial qualities of childlike-ness that the Christ Child, when he became an adult, urged his followers to embrace.
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Mary begins her private and exuberant song singing, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She obviously believes in this whole wild, preposterous, and seemingly crazy story that she, a virgin, is now pregnant—and not only that, but with the Messiah, the Savior for whom her people have been waiting for centuries to be revealed. Her song is actually a direct response to her relative Elizabeth’s statement to her, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
Martin Luther, the fifteenth-century reformer, once said, “There are three miracles of the Nativity That God became man, that a virgin conceived, and that Mary believed. And the greatest of these was the last.”6
She was just a young girl from an ordinary little town from the back of beyond; yet she believed it all.
Children have the fathomless ability to believe anything; it is one of their most beautiful traits
She didn’t fully understand the angel’s message, but she understood who God was, and she remembered the last thing the angel Gabriel said to her: “For nothing is impossible with God.” Her “yes” turned the course of history.
Nevertheless, in spite of her great faith, Mary still needed reassurance. Perhaps this is why the angel told her about Elizabeth, her elderly relative who was also inexplicably pregnant. It wasn’t until she saw Elizabeth, who astonishingly already knew about Mary’s condition, that it all came together in Mary’s young mind, and then she sings this song with all her heart
Furthermore, Mary’s faith as expressed in the Magnificat did not negate the need to ask the hard questions. Mary boldly asked the angel, “How is it all going to happen?” She was wholly confused. And children are fond of asking questions—outrageous ones, sometimes
Mary was mystified, uncomprehending, and totally puzzled. While she needed divine reassurance, with the encouragement God provided her through Elizabeth’s experience, she chooses to believe
The promise from Mary in her song is that those who do not restrict God’s activity in their lives will never be the same
for he has been mindful of the humble state
of his servant…. for the Mighty One has done great things
for me—holy is his name
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
These “great things” given her by God are contrasted with her “low or humble” status in society, making sure to emphasize her feeling of not deserving such a great gift. The terms “bumble” or “low estate” at that time bad 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
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.
Perhaps this is why Luke gives women a very significant place in his gospel account: Luke sees women as full recipients of God’s 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 IMain, 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 God’s 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.” 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
Mary’s song demonstrates that she also knew how to receive, and that she didn’t let all her “background” or “baggage” get in the way of embracing the good gifts God had for her
If you have seen Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful painting The Annunciation, you may recall how Mary is portrayed with her head lowered, indicating her “humble state.” Yet, it is while she is in that position we see the angel Gabriel blessing her with the sign of the cross.
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 in 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.
Trusting and Following
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
In essence, she 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. During Mary’s time, the religious worldview accepted that the rich would be well cared for by God, but that the poor must expect to be hungry.
She is singing of a Messiah, whom she personalizes as “her” Savior, and -who turns the attitudes and orders of society upside down: morally, socially, and economically.
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.
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 angel’s 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.
Mary, in singing these powerful “revolutionary” words, is saying she trusts her Savior and will follow his new way, which is a complete reversal of the values of the world as she knew it. 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
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
This Child yearns to give a new kind of life to anyone who turns to him, even to such as you and me. This is the treasure of which Mary sings, and “which can be ours as well.