[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given on June 17, 2017 at the United Church of God congregation in Hood River, Oregon.]
I promised you all last Sabbath when you visited Portland that I would have a new message for you when I spoke to you again, having given the sermonette the last two Sabbaths. As I am a man of my word, today I would like to speak about one of the better known passages of scripture. For the record, this message will be about double the length of my normal sermonettes thanks to a request from Mr. Slocum to go long as his message will be shorter than usual. To return to the point, Roman Catholics refer to the particular song of praise I will be speaking about today as the Magnificat of Mary, and I would like to begin today by quoting this particular hymn to you. We find this hymn in Luke 1:46-55. This particular hymn was sung by Mary while she was visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who at the time was pregnant with John the Baptist after a long period of barrenness. Luke 1:46-55 reads: “And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.””
There are a few aspects of this passage that are worth noting in placing it in its proper context. First, let us note that this passage is a poem, and has some striking similarities with at least a couple of other Hebrew poems of considerable importance in the Bible, both of which we will be looking at today . The poem takes the title by which it is best known from its first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” with the Latin form of magnification being magnifat, straightforwardly enough. We may also be able to see that this particular poem is a hymn of praise to God. Mary is expressing gratitude to God for the favor of bearing the Savior, and is pointing out that people will call her blessed among women because of the favor that God has granted her. Mary is not taking this attention for herself, but rather giving the praise and glory where it belongs, to God above. Although this passage is most familiar to Roman Catholics, the passage and its focus itself are a rebuke to viewing Mary herself as being more than a woman, as Mary herself shows the proper devotion and humility that one would expect from a servant of God. This importance of humility also brings out one of the hymn’s more notable qualities of being about the reversals by which God blesses the lowly and not the proud who are wise and mighty in their own sight. Let us keep this in mind, as it is the content of this psalm and its themes of God raising the lowly and humbling the high and mighty that puts this psalm in its proper context.
One of the two songs in the Bible that the Magnificat of Mary is most similar with is Hannah’s song, which is found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. At the time of giving this prayer, Hannah was herself a barren wife of a Levite of the Sons of Korah named Elkannah, who was provoked to great despair and bitterness by her rival wife Penninah, who was not as beloved but who had far more children. In 1 Samuel 2:1-10, we read: “And Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation. No one is holy like the Lord, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly; let no arrogance come from your mouth, for the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven, and she who has many children has become feeble. The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He has set the world upon them. He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness. For by strength no man shall prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces; from heaven He will thunder against them. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed.””
Here too we have a striking example of Hebrew poetry very similar to that of Mary’s hymn that we read previously in Luke 1. Here too we see a humble woman glorifying in God for His actions. We see the reversals that Mary spoke of spoken of here too, of the barren woman (like Hannah) being given children, of the proud being brought low, of the hungry being fed, of the poor being made rich, of the low being made high by the strength and might of God in order to accomplish His will. Here too, we see Hannah praising Jesus Christ, if indirectly, saying that God will strengthen the horn (or power) of His King. It is all the more striking that this hymn was created when there was, as Judges famously repeats over and over again, no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Even in this time of moral darkness, Hannah is able to look forward to a time when God’s will would prevail and things would be set right once again. After all, in the ancient world, to be barren, to be without children, was a tremendous curse, one that would drive men and especially women to drastic actions. Even today women who long for children and cursed with infertility will take drastic actions to accomplish this, with surrogate mothers and in-vitro fertilization. It is little wonder in an ancient world without such medical technology that a godly woman would praise God for granting fullness of food, of children, and of the good things of life.
We see these same concerns when we look at the other biblical hymn that resembles the hymn of Mary, and that can be found in Psalm 113, which also helps to provide us with some context. Psalm 113 reads: “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its going down the Lord’s name is to be praised. The Lord is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who dwells on high, who humbles Himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth? He raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap, that He may seat him with princes—with the princes of His people. He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children. Praise the Lord!”
This particular psalm opens the section of psalms that Jews sing every year at their Seders. Let us note, though, that although this psalm may be unfamiliar to us, the message it gives ought to be familiar to us given what we have seen in Mary’s song and in Hannah’s song previously. Here again we have an unnamed psalmist giving praise to God for what He has done, and specifically we see both a focus on God’s transcendent power and glory and might and also his concern for the little people who are often neglected in this world. Here again, as in Hannah’s song, we see God lifting the poor out of the dust to seat him with princes, and we see God’s concern for the barren woman bereft of home and family. Also, we see in this psalm at least one praise of God that points us directly to Jesus Christ, namely the praise of the anonymous psalmist for the way that God humbles himself to behold what is in heaven and on the earth. And when did the God family humble themselves more than when Jesus Christ came to this earth and lived as a human being, subject to all of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, yet without sin?
So, what do all of these songs tell us about the context of Mary’s song within the Bible. For one, we can note that Mary’s own song is a type of praise psalm that has noble antecedents in the Hebrew scriptures. Mary was certainly familiar with her Bible as a young woman, far more familiar than most of us are, in choosing the model of 1 Samuel 2 and Psalm 113 for her own hymn of praise to God for his concern with the well-being of His humble people. Mary’s own concern for her barren cousin Elizabeth, with whom she stayed for the last few months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, is mirrored in those psalms. God wants us to be parts of families, His own and our own, and His concern with an engaged teenage girl who was about to become an important part in the cosmic story of redemption that God worked through Jesus Christ is something that the Bible had prophesied and commented on long before, as Hannah was the mother of Samuel, and lived about 1100BC or so. When we return to this subject in my next message, we will have something else to examine. For now, let us note that the Bible is deeply linked within itself, and that we would do well to study the psalms of the Bible, not least so that we may praise Him as did the heroes and heroines of faith before us.
Having examined the context of the Magnificat of Mary within the larger body of Hebrew poetry, let us now return to Luke 1:46-55 and examine what Mary is saying in this particular passage a bit more closely. Let us take this hymn and divide it into three parts and examine each part on its own, to see what Mary is really singing here. The first part of Mary’s song is in verses 46 through 50, which read: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.” Mary the mother of Jesus Christ is so highly honored, by some to the point of idolatry, that it is difficult for us to realize how ironic this particular passage must have seemed at the time to early readers, and how bravely Mary said it given her circumstances. For us, Mary is the woman who gave birth to our Lord and Savior, and whose heart was pierced by the suffering of seeing him crucified for our sins. For the people of her time, though, Mary would have been viewed somewhat differently. At the time Mary sang this particular hymn, she would have likely been a young teenager between the ages of thirteen and sixteen or so. She would have been engaged to be married to Joseph, who was likely at least somewhat older than she was, and she would have been facing the shame and dishonor of being an unwed teenage mother. Indeed, Mary knew quite well the lowly state of of God’s maidservant and the mercy from God that would have to be extended to someone who would receive little mercy from the nasty gossips of her time.
Hold your place here in Luke 1, because we will return. It is important to recognize that rumor and gossip and innuendo about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth hovered around Jesus Christ during his lifetime, and unsurprisingly they greatly angered him. We see one such example of this in John 8:37-47. In John 8:37-47, we see a testy exchange between Jesus Christ and a hostile Judean audience that decisively turns on slander about Jesus’ own parentage: ““I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”” These are particularly fierce words, and we can imagine that Jesus Christ had heard many such vicious and vile words before. Perhaps even from His childhood Jesus Christ had heard and understood what people said of His mother and thought about His mother and of His own background, and knowing the truth He would have burned with righteous indignation at those who thought that He had been born of fornication. We may honor Mary because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ and what He has done for us, but during Jesus’ own lifetime both He and His mother suffered serious dishonor because of His family background and the circumstances of His birth. When we struggle with shame because of the circumstances of our early childhood, Jesus understands that shame from His own experience.
Let us return to Luke 1:51-53 and read the second part of Mary’s hymn: “He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” Here we see another irony, the irony of the Eternal showing blessing and favor to those who are not viewed highly by the world at large. Like the hymns we looked at previously in 1 Samuel 2 and Psalm 113, this was not an unusual irony in Hebrew poetry. Given that Israel was raised out of slavery to be God’s chosen people, it is to be expected that they would be sensitive to the ironies of how God chooses that which is viewed with contempt and disrespect by the rest of the world. There are many chapters which demonstrate this concern–perhaps most obviously 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, which tell us: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”” Mary was viewed as base and was despised in her state, and just as God has done from the beginning, God chooses that which is looked down on to build up His Kingdom, so that He may receive the credit that is due for turning that which is poorly regarded and little respected into that which reflects His glory and is worthy of honor because of what He has done.
Let us now return to the last section of Mary’s hymn, in Luke 1:54-55: “He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.”” Mary closes her hymn on a point that we would do well to remember as we finish this message. The coming of Jesus Christ was meant for help and mercy. It is all too easy for us to look at what is wrong in this world and to desire harsh judgment. To be sure, there is certainly a time for harsh judgment. That said, it is important to note that the first choice of God in His dealings with us is to extend mercy graciously to us. We as human beings do not always make it easy for God or other people to show mercy and extend graciousness to us. Part of what makes this song by Mary so moving is the way that her own state of poverty and dishonor is contrasted with the glory and power and generosity of God, and in the fact that she praises God knowing that whatever she suffered would serve as a means by which the Eternal would show kindness and mercy to His people, and to fulfill the promises He made to Abraham that through his Seed all the earth would be blessed. Let us hope that we can praise God in the manner of Mary, and that our lives and our example may demonstrate the mercy and faithfulness of God to a world that all too often forgets Him and His promises. Even if our age forgets what God has done, let us never forget.
 See, for example: