22 December 2010

Luke 1:46-56

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant." (vv. 46-48)


The Magnificat is the first of the canticles or songs of praise that the Gospel writer Luke attributes to characters in the Christmas story. Like the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32) these songs of praise have been adopted by the Church as sung or spoken responses to the reading of the Scriptures ever since. 

In each case they are presented as a personal response to a specific event. Here with the Magnificat Mary responds to Elizabeth's exclamation that she is blessed in being the one who will bear the Messiah. And yet the words are a general enough affirmation of God's goodness that they can be used on many occasions to articulate our responses to God's word to us as we hear the Scriptures and allow them to speak into our lives. 

Mary's song has echoes of the song that Hannah sang (1 Samuel 2:1-10) as she took her son Samuel to the Temple to leave him there with Eli the priest. In that song Hannah acknowledges that Samuel was a gift from the Lord and that the Lord has the power to 'raise people from the ash heap' (1 Samuel 2:8) (in her case, of barrenness), but also to 'break the bows of the mighty' (1 Samuel 2:4). The implication is that Hannah accepts both the incredible grace of the gift of a child long after she had given up hope, and that she must give him up so that he can fulfil his calling to serve the Lord. 

Mary's song picks up from Hannah's song the theme of the exaltation of the lowly and the humiliation of the proud (common themes of Luke's Gospel). This relates also to God's promise to redeem the people of Israel who were often downtrodden, oppressed and at the time of Jesus' birth under Roman occupation. Yet there is perhaps here also an echo of Hannah's acceptance that the Lord who gives also takes away. Mary knows that she is blessed; she rejoices in playing her part in God's salvation and yet the time will come when she too will have to give up her son whose calling is also to serve. 

To Ponder

Praise is always understood in the Bible as a response to God's character and actions. What makes you want to praise God?

Why do you think that praise is often best expressed in poetry or song?

It is easier to offer praise when we feel God is giving us blessings than when it seems he is taking them away. What is the value of praising God at these times?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..