From Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus come four important songs that have been sung now for over 2,000 years: the Magnificat or Song of Mary; the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah who was the father of John the Baptist; the Gloria in Excelsis or Song of the Heavenly Host; and the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon. Today I would like to offer some reflections on the Song of Mary.
Mary sang this song while visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house tired and likely quite anxious about what was going on. Not only was she still processing Gabriel’s visit and message, she was probably beginning to consider how Joseph and others would react to her being pregnant. Elizabeth reminded her that the baby in her womb was to be the long-promised Savior of the world (Luke 1:39-45). Upon hearing this, the weight of the Gabriel’s message along with any anxiousness that Mary had left her. Inspired by the Holy Spirit she sang this incredible song of praise.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
The word “soul” in the Greek is “psyche” from which we get the English word “psyche.” It is an all-encompassing word meaning everything about the internal part of a person: heart, mind, and everything that allows life and thought to be. The word also conveys the eternal nature of this part of a person.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Part of what Mary is saying here is that even though her neighbors and the citizens of Nazareth might consider her to have made some serious mistakes and be full of shortcomings, all future generations will realize how blessed she was because through her the whole world would be blessed by her son Jesus. For her this is not a statement of pride, but a reminder of what the angel Gabriel told her (Luke 1:26-38) and as such simply a statement of fact.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
The word “mercy” in the Greek is “eleos” and means pity and compassion. The meaning also includes the benefits that come from compassion and kindness. In the Greek the word “fear” is a form of the word “fobeo” which literally means to fear or be alarmed, but in this context means to have deep reverence, awe, and respect.
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.
In this long sentence there are six phrases expressing three parallel thoughts in the Hebrew poetic style. They express the “Lord God” has done, “Lord” being “kyrion” in the Greek or “YAHWEH ELOHIM” in the Hebrew (see The Meaning of the Name of Jesus). This sentence is not built on one or two verbs, but rather six powerful verbs that indicate a living, loving, and active God: “shown”, “scattered”, “brought”, “exalted”, “filled”, and “sent.”
The song concludes with a sentence that contains two more active verbs: “helped” and “spoke.” The latter reminds us that not only did God speak the world into existence, He also saved the world through the Word incarnate whose coming was foretold by the prophets and through whom God speaks eternally.
He has helped his servant Israel,Luke 1:46-55
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Sadly, the Magnificat is not sung much these days except in evening services in liturgical settings. Singing or listening to others sing the song, however, is a great way to consider and meditate on the great gift that God has given us through Jesus Christ.
Here is a setting from the Vespers service in the Lutheran Service Book (Concordia Publishing House, 2006).
Here is another setting from the Evening Prayer service of the Lutheran Service Book.
Below are a few settings of the Latin text of this wonderful song. Blessed Advent!
MAGNIFICAT FOR 6 VOICES – Michael Praetorius (c1571-1621)
MAGNIFICAT, SWV 468 – Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
MAGNIFICAT – Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
MAGNIFICAT, BWV 243 – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Jubal’s Lyre Music Shop for music by Jubal’s Lyre Music Publishers on www.sheetmusicplus.com.