10 December

The Magnificat: Mary’s Redemption Song in Luke 1

Luke 1:39-56

I like to imagine Mary singing her special song about her special son when she looked into his eyes, nursed him, clothed him, changed him, and taught him to talk, pray, and sing. After all, there are echoes of this song in Jesus’ special prayer, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Her song is called the Magnificat because the Latin version begins with Magnificat (“magnifies”; the NIV has “glorifies”). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1933, described this song as “the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung” (Collected Sermons 1.116).

The Occasion for the Song

Upon Mary’s greeting the family in the muted Zechariah’s home, some two days journey south from the Galilee, John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, which was the palpable experience of being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

So inspired, Elizabeth uttered a triple blessing on Mary in words famous now among Roman Catholics: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Mary is the one blessed here and is called “the mother of my Lord.” Her focus aside, the narrative begins to shift our attention away from the miracle baby John to the virginally conceived baby Jesus, and it also shifts our minds from the significance of John to the superior significance of Jesus.

We can speculate about why Mary “hurried” to the hills of Judea but that’s all it is: speculation. Scandal shows no hints here, though eventually some would set rumors loose. Justo González, a wonderful theologian and historian, wonders if Mary didn’t hurry to be with Elizbeth out of “solidarity” (González, Luke, 22).

A Song for the Son of Redemption

Mary’s song evokes dozens of lines and terms from Israel’s Scriptures, and you might look some up in your study Bible’s cross references. Especially Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. There are so many echoes of Bible passages we are stunned by the depth and richness of Mary’s grasp of the Bible’s redemption story. In fact, Mary’s song expresses the heart of the gospel.

As Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “The church’s central task is an imaginative one. By that I do not mean a fanciful or fictional task, but one in which the human capacity to imagine—to form mental pictures of the self, the neighbor, the world, the future, to envision new realities—is both engaged and transformed.” Some pages later she connected such an imagination to faith in these words: “In faith, we imagine ourselves whole, imagine ourselves in love with our neighbors, imagine ourselves bathed and fed by God, imagine the creation at peace, imagine the breath of God coinciding with our own, imagine the heart of God beating at the heart of the world” (Taylor, The Preaching Life, 41, 53). Mary’s faith produced Mary’s imagination, and her imagination fed her faith.

This woman of faith’s song begins with a personal wit- ness, and her witness evokes the emotion of relief through vindication: “My soul” and “my spirit” and “his servant” and “call me blessed” (ignored by most Protestants) and “for me.” A slight shift happens in verse fifty when we read, “to those who fear him,” but this too is about Mary’s own experience of awe before her God.

Following her personal testimony of God answering her prayers for the redemption of her people, Mary’s song suddenly turns into metaphors for God’s redemption. Each of the metaphors invites our imaginations to consider the redemption God works in Jesus from different angles. Here they are: “performed mighty deeds” and “scattered those who are proud” and “brought down rulers” and “lifted up the humble [or poor]” and “filled the hungry” and “sent the rich away empty” and “helped his servant Israel” according to the Abrahamic promise.

We must pause to adjust our vision. We have been enculturated to think of redemption as both (almost exclusively) individual and (almost entirely) spiritual. Not for Mary. Notice how physical and political and national and social her sense of redemption is. Rulers dethroned, the poor enthroned, the hungry filled with food, and the rich sent packing. This is a “political manifesto” (Levine-Witherington, Luke, 42), a prediction of a great reversal in redemption. I was once told that during a particularly turbulent time, a South American country banned Roman Catholics from singing this song. It features daily in the monastery life. So politically threatening was the imagination of this song it was banned! Have we tamed it? (The answer is “Yes.”)

All these fulfill the promise to Abraham. Just open your Bibles to watch these redemptive blessings reverberate when John himself preaches, when Jesus preaches, and then explains himself to John, all of which will come to fruition in Luke’s second book, Acts.

It took courage to sing this song. Again, Bonhoeffer says it right: “This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary as we often seen her portrayed in paintings [she is] passionate, carried away, proud, enthusiastic.” Her song is a “hard, strong, relentless hymn about the toppling of thrones and the humiliation of the lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerfulness of humankind” (Collected Sermons, 116). Her first Christmas is unlike any other, and it is radically different from ours.

This courageous woman’s song about the son of redemption is a song about holistic redemption. Only a holistic redemption fits the pattern of Scripture’s expectations for the messianic kingdom. And here’s the foundation of it all: Mary’s song is about her son, Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of the Most High, the messiah, and the Lord. He is the one who brings this redemption. This redemption cannot be reduced to ethics, morality, or even what we call social justice. Its foundation is a Person, and in that Person holistic redemption explodes into living realities.

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. How does the Mary depicted in this section compare to the Mary often depicted in Christian art, especially around Christmas?
  2. What are the tangible, political, holistic themes in Mary’s song?
  3. Look up Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. What parallels (or “rhymes”) do you see with Mary’s song?
  4. What words in this passage describe God? Compare this song to Psalm 136. What similarities do you find?
  5. What emotions do you notice in this narrative and particularly in the Magnificat?

Come back next week when Scot looks at Luke 1:57-80 and revisits Elizabeth, baby John the Baptist, and Mary. For the full Luke Bible study from McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.