Understanding the Virgin Mary’s Magnificent Hymn of Praise
~ Background ~
The month of May has been designated by the Church as a month of special honor for our holy Mother, the Virgin Mary. It is a perfect opportunity to study the great canticle of faith and praise that we call the Magnificat.
After the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the miracle of the Incarnation of the Christ, Mary immediately set out to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. The angel had revealed to Mary that her God is the God of the impossible because even her elderly, previously barren kinswoman was six months with child (Lk 1:36). Mary probably joined a caravan traveling to Jerusalem to make the 7-8 day journey from Nazareth in the Galilee to the hill country of Judea where Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zechariah, lived. According to a Christian tradition that predates the Crusades, Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in the Judean town of Ein Kerem, about four miles west of Jerusalem (Shrines of the Holy Land, pages 125-29). After the return from the Babylonian exile, the Book of Nehemiah records that the chief priests took up residence in or near Jerusalem (Neh 11:3).
As was the custom of the day, Elizabeth was in seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy as the ancients counted without the concept of a zero place-value (Lk 1:24). It was now the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy as they ancients counted (Lk 1:36) when Mary traveled to visit her. Mary’s desire to visit her kinswoman was probably prompted by the Holy Spirit as well as by her need to share her amazing experience with someone who will understand.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
42 cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you
among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb (Lk 1:41-42).
When Mary entered her house and Elizabeth first heard Mary’s voice (Lk 1:40), the fetus of St. John the Baptist, recognizing the presence of his Lord, leapt for joy within his mother’s womb (Lk 1:41, 44). The unborn St. John’s response to Mary and the Christ within her womb recalls God’s words to Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you (Jer 1:5). Think of the horror of abortion that is taking place daily as children, personally known by God from the womb and given as His holy gift, are violently murdered before (and in some cases after) birth.
In Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit inspired greeting to her kinswoman, she gives three blessings in verses 42-45:
Elizabeth’s third blessing for Mary: Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled, is given in contrast to Zechariah’s unbelief. Mary is the first Christian. Her belief does not waver during the years of Jesus ministry or during His Passion. She will be faithfully praying together with those believed and waited for the coming of the Paraclete in the Upper Room after Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 1:13-14).
And then Elizabeth says: And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1:43). Bible scholars both ancient and modern have seen the similarity of Elizabeth’s rhetorical question in Luke 1:43 and King David’s rhetorical question in 2 Samuel 6:9 when he said: How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?, speaking of the Ark of the Covenant. They have seen Elizabeth’s question as an intentional comparison between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of the Lord God (see the chart on Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant). A deliberate comparison seems to be confirmed by verse 56 where Mary is said to stay in Elizabeth’s house in the Judean hill country three months, just as the Ark stayed in the Judean hill country housed of Obed-edom for three months in 2 Samuel 6:11.
When Elizabeth refers to “my Lord” in verse 43 and to “the Lord” in verse 45, she is referring to Jesus in verse 43 and God in verse 45. She is referring to the Divinity of Jesus and therefore to Mary as “the mother of God.” It is by the strength of Elizabeth’s statement, prompted by the Holy Spirit, that the Council of Ephesus declared Mary not only the “Mother of Jesus” but also the “Mother of God” in 431 AD. CCC 495: Called in the Gospels “the mother of Jesus,” Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as “the mother of my Lord.” In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly “Mother of God” (Theotokos). Also see CCC 466, 495 and 509.
From what Elizabeth says in verse 45, she not only knows what the angel Gabriel told her husband but also what Gabriel told Mary. This knowledge was imparted to her by the Holy Spirit in the moment of her joy but other information must also have been imparted to her by her husband (see 1:60 where she knows the name of the child before Zechariah’s speech has returned). For other references to the expression “fruit of your womb” in Scripture see Deuteronomy 7:13 where God promised to bless Israel for covenant obedience: He will love and bless and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the produce of your soil…. Also see Psalms 127:3 where it is written: Children too are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward. To reject the birth of a child is to reject a gift from God.
Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s exclamation of praise for Mary’s belief and the honor God has shown her as “the mother of the Lord,” is a hymn of praise that is known as the Magnificat. Some scholars have concluded that Mary’s Magnificat like the Benedictus of Zechariah (Lk 1:68-79) was an early Aramaic Jewish-Christian hymn that predates Luke’s Gospel. Other scholars disagree, citing the numerous references to the Greek Septuagint Old Testament passages within the two chants (Fr. Raymond Brown, The Birth of Jesus, pages 350-55 and the opposing view from Fr. Raymond Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, page 361). One test for such a theory is how easily the Greek translates into Hebrew or Aramaic.
~ The Canticle of Mary (the Magnificat) ~
Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; 47 my spirit rejoices in God my savior. 48 For he has looked upon his handmaid’s
lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. 49 The Mighty One has done great things
for me, and holy is his name. 50 His
mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. 51 He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant
of mind and heart. 52 He
has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. 53 The hungry he has filled with good
things; the rich he has sent away empty. 54
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, 55 according to his promise to our
fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Mary’s hymn of praise can be divided into three parts:
Luke 1:46-47 ~ And Mary
said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; 47 my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
Mary begins by calling God her personal savior. The word “Lord,” Kyrois in Greek, is understood to be Yahweh who is the source of Mary’s blessing and her salvation. The expression “rejoices God my Savior” is an echo of Hannah’s hymn of praise to God in 1 Samuel 2:1.
In verse 48, Mary says: For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The NJB has “he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant” which is an echo of Habakkuk 3:18. Her humble station is the first reason for Mary’s praise. She declares that because of God’s Divine plan for her life and her willingness to submit to that plan all generations will pronounce a beatitude over her; the verb makariousin, in the future tense, reflects the adjective makaria that Elizabeth uses in verse 45 (Fr. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, page 367).
Mary utters the prophecy of future generations and her relationship to them prompted by the Holy Spirit. But this prophecy requires action on the part of Christians. It is our obligation to honor Mary just as her Son honored her according to the Law and because of His love for her. To honor one’s parents is the only one of the Ten Commandments that carries a promise (see Ex 20:12). When Jesus gave Mary into the care of the beloved disciple as his mother at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:26-27), she became the mother of every disciple of Christ Jesus (also see Rev 12:17).
Luke 1:49-50 ~ The
Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is from age to age to those
who fear him.
Verse 49 is the second reason for Mary’s praise. She uses the same title for God that is found in the “daughter of Zion” passage in Zephaniah 3:17 (LXX = Greek Septuagint translation) and Psalms 89:9 (LXX). That God “has done great things” for her is an echo of Deuteronomy 10:21 in which God promises the children of Israel He will do “great things”— great saving acts for them if they remain loyal and obedient. Mary sees this promise fulfilled personally for her in what God has done in making her the mother of the Redeemer-Messiah—a “great thing” that will not only bring about her salvation but the salvation of her people (also see Dt 11:7 and Judg 2:7).
In verses 49-50 Mary names three attributes of God: His might, holiness and mercy. “Holy is his name” or “His name is holy” refers to God’s Divine Name YHWH and is an echo of Psalms 119:9 while His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him is an echo of Psalms 103:17. A name was believed to express the total essence of a person or in this case, of God as the great “I AM” and about which God told Moses “This is my name forever; this is my title for all generations” (see Ex 3:15).
When Mary speaks of fear of the Lord in verse 50, something God urges repeatedly in Scripture (i.e., Ex 18:21; Lev 25:17, 36, 43; Dt 6:13, 24; 8:6; 10:12, 20) that is repeated almost verbatim from Ps 103:17, she is not speaking of servile fear but reverence toward God in recognizing His sovereignty and fear of offending God. It is the positive aspect of keeping on the path to righteousness. Mary’s hymn that began in praise for what God has done for her personally has now expanded to what God has done for her people as a whole.
Luke 1:50-53 ~ He has
shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. 52 He has thrown down the rulers
[princes] from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. 53 The hungry he has filled with good
things; the rich he has sent away empty.
Expressions similar to “shown the might with his arm” are often found in Scripture (see for example Ex 6:6; Dt 4:34; Ps 89:11; Is 40:10; 51:5, 9; 53:1). God is spirit and this expression is not meant to suggest God has arms like human beings. It is an anthropomorphism meant to convey the exercise of God’s great power and strength in the world of mankind. Verse 52 is an echo of Job 5:11 and 12:19.
The wealthy who are the “arrogant of mind and heart” are the enemies of the poor and humble and therefore the enemies of God (see Is 2:12, 17; 4:15; 13:11; Wis 3:10-11; etc.). Mary is speaking of the promise of God’s ultimate justice for those who have suffered and for those who have caused the suffering. She includes a quote from Psalms 107:9: For he satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with good things. In His Divine justice, God will judge men and women according to their works (Mt 25:31-46; Lk 6:20-25), and the rich who abused the use of their material gifts will experience a reversal of fortune in that they will be “sent away empty.”
Luke 1:54-55 ~ He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his
mercy, 55 according to his
promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants [seed] forever.
Mary’s concluding statement contains echoes of the promises of Isaiah 41:8-9 from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament that was the common translation used in Mary’s time, as well as Psalms 98:3 and Micah 7:20:
Mary understands that her condition in bearing the Redeemer-Messiah who is the heir of King David and of the promises of the Davidic covenant is a fulfillment of God’s promise not to abandon His covenant people. Her Son will be a fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. One of those promises was of a blessing that is to extend world-wide (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). That blessing will be fulfilled in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:8).
Mary’s great humility and faith is illuminated in her beautiful hymn of praise; this is, of course, the way God created her. In the Catechism, citation 722, the Church teaches: The Holy Spirit prepared Mary by his grace. It was fitting that the mother of him in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells, bodily, should herself be “full of grace.” She was, by sheer grace, conceived without sin as the most humble of creatures, the most capable of welcoming the inexpressible gift of the Almighty. It was quite correct for the angel Gabriel to greet her as the “Daughter of Zion”: “Rejoice.” It is the thanksgiving of the whole People of God, and thus of the Church, which Mary in her canticle lifts up to the Father in the Holy Spirit while carrying within her the eternal Son.
Luke 1:56 ~ Mary
remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
According to Scripture, Elizabeth was six month with child when Mary arrived (Lk 1:24, 26), and Mary remained with Elizabeth three months. But Mary did not stay until Elizabeth’s son was born. The ancients counted without the concept of a zero place-value, this is why Scripture records Jesus rested in the tomb three days from Friday to Sunday instead of two. As the ancients counted, with the first month of pregnancy counting as month #1, a woman carried a child according to ancient reckoning for ten months (see Wis 7:1-2). Therefore, according to the way we count, Elizabeth was five months pregnant when the angel visited Mary and she was eight months pregnant when Mary left. Mary left the month before St. John’s birth.
Mary made the return journey to Nazareth when she was two months pregnant as we count months (three as the ancients counted). She had important issues to settle in Nazareth before her pregnancy began to show and before travel became too dangerous for her. She trusted in God to protect her and to bring His Divine plan for man’s salvation through the birth of her Son to completion.
In honor of “Mary’s month of May” and the Feast of the Visitation that concludes Mary’s Month on May 31st
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2015, Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.