The Magnificat

In the previous post, the visit of the Theotokos to St. Elizabeth was discussed with particular reference to St. Luke’s use of the Old Testament within the narrative to communicate a further depth and context to what is otherwise a reasonably simple event.  This post will continue the narrative, particularly addressing the song of the Theotokos, the Magnificat, which would become the Ninth Biblical Ode.

Luke 1:46: Verse 46 begins the Magnificat proper. the Theotokos’ response to receiving the sign of St. Elizabeth’s pregnancy and her prophetic testimony is to issue forth this prophetic song, which stands in parallel, as already mentioned, to the pattern within the Old Testament of biblical odes following great acts of deliverance by God in the history of the Israelite people.  In Ex 15:20–21, another ‘Mariam’ leads the people of Israel in singing a portion of the first of these odes following the deliverance through the Red Sea. This song, therefore, represents both the response of faith as described by St. Elizabeth in verse 45, as well as its own prophetic utterance that God is already keeping and fulfilling his promises to his people.

The Magnificat as a unit follows the format not only of previous biblical odes in general but of the song of Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1–10 in particular.  Both of these are not only prophetic hymns but prophetic hymns sung by women experiencing miraculous childbirth as a result of the promise of God. Additionally, the beginning of both of these hymns use very similar vocabulary, and both contain strong themes of inversion or reversal of fortune, particularly exemplified by the trading of places between the rich and the poor.

The language of the opening line of the hymn, in which St. Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord, parallels similar language in the Psalms, specifically Ps 33:3 and 34:9 (Greek). In each of these cases, the soul of the Psalmist is giving glory to God, in the first case because the Lord has heard his plea, and in the second over the Lord’s salvation. This beginning establishes the hymn as a thanksgiving on the Theotokos’ part, demonstrating her belief once more that the revelation which she has received will come to fulfillment.

Luke 1:47: Verse 47 represents an instance of synthetic parallelism, a common device of Hebrew poetry. Here St. Mary’s spirit is paralleled with her soul, her magnification of the Lord with her rejoicing in God her savior. The language here directly parallels that of Hab 3:18 in Greek translation, in which Habakkuk expresses confidence, despite appearances to the contrary, in the Lord’s promises, again reflecting the theme of the Theotokos’ faith in the Lord to bring his promises to her to fruition. This language is also found in the Greek of Is 61:10, which utilizes a metaphor of marriage to describe the salvation of God, and inverts the language of 17:10 in which forgetfulness of God their savior brings Israel under a curse.

Luke 1:48: Verse 48 begins a causal clause expressing the reason for the previously mentioned thanksgiving and glorification. God has seen the Theotokos’ lowly estate, and yet, see, that all future generations will call her ‘happy’. This juxtaposition begins the theme of inversion of fate which will play out through the remainder of the hymn, and even in the remainder of Luke’s Gospel in the preaching of Christ, and even the interpretation of his death and resurrection in the early speeches of the book of Acts. The specific language here is drawn from Hannah’s prayer, preceding her song, 1 Sam 1:11.  This same language of God looking upon the low estate of his people is used also in 1 Sam 9:16 in relation to Samuel’s coronation of Saul to deliver his people. Leah also uses this language in Gen 29:32 at the birth of her firstborn son, Reuben. This language, therefore, draws together the ideas of childbirth as a blessing of God and the deliverance of God’s people from their enemies by a divinely appointed king. The second clause, regarding St. Mary’s recognition as happy or blessed by all subsequent generations, parallels language used in the Greek translation of Gen 22:18, speaking of Abraham as the name by which all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.

Luke 1:49: Verse 49 is likewise a causal clause, again a case of synthetic parallelism with the preceding.  God has seen St. Mary’s lowly estate and reversed it in the previous verse leading all future generations to bless her name, here he in his power has done great things for her, resulting in the Theotokos declaring his name to be holy. God as the doer of great things is a common identifier in the Greek Old Testament, as in Deut 10:21 and Ps 70:19 and 44:4–6. The hallowing of God’s name as a response to his faithfulness to his covenant is a theme in Psalm 110:9 and becomes a theme in the Lord’s prayer as recorded in Lk 11:2.

Luke 1:50: Verse 50 represents smaller parallelism with the second clause of verse 49, both clauses beginning with καὶ. The language of God’s mercy continuing from generation to generation upon those who fear him is drawn directly from the Psalms. It is a recurring theme in Ps 102 and recurs in Ps 99:5 and 88:2 (Greek). The reference to the succeeding of generations is here an establishment of continuity. As God has done great deeds in the past, in the Torah itself and afterward, so now he is acting for the Theotokos through her pregnancy and subsequent birth-giving.

Luke 1:51: Verse 51 draws upon the Old Testament imagery of the mighty arm of God. Nearly identical language is used in the Greek of Ps 88:11, several verses after the language of God’s mercy extending to generations of those who fear him cited above, arguing that this portion of the hymn is under the influence of Ps 88. The language of the scattering of the proud is found in Pro 3:34, followed by a parallel with the ταπεινοίς who will be mentioned in the following verse. Though it represents only one half of the dynamic, this humbling of the proud serves to introduce the theme in the following two verses of reversal.

Luke 1:52: Verses 52 and 53 represent another synthetic parallel, both verses dealing with the theme of inversion or reversal found throughout the hymn. Here, God is said to have removed the powerful from their thrones and lifted up those of lowly estate. The language here used regarding the exaltation of the lowly appears to be drawn directly from the Greek translation of Ezek 21:31. Ezek 21 is explicitly an oracle against the nation of Israel itself and in particular, its wicked king, whom God is going to remove from his throne, removing the crown from his head (v. 26) and uplifting those whom he has oppressed. By God’s saving action to take place through the Theotokos’ birth-giving, God has not only refuted the wisdom of the proud, but he will also execute judgment against the corrupt and wicked rulers of his people. This will bring freedom and exaltation to those whom they have oppressed.

Luke 1:53: The political imagery of the previous verse is paralleled in verse 53 with imagery of wealth and poverty. The language of God filling the hungry with good things is drawn from Ps 106:9 (Greek). Here again, the theme is the reversal of fortune, that the wealthy and the powerful who have prospered on the back of the poor and lowly will be humbled in return for their crimes, while those who have been oppressed will be vindicated, and that this will take place through the child to be born of St. Mary.  There was, for ancient people, not a clear distinction between the political and theological as two separate spheres.  Human rulers were seen as conduits or wielders of spiritual powers greater than themselves.  There is, therefore, not a distinction made in Scripture between wicked human rulers and the rebellious spiritual powers whom they represent.  Likewise, material and spiritual oppression are always linked.  Sin has spiritual and material dimensions, so do deliverance and restoration.  Healing and transformation in Christ take place in both personal and communal dimensions, the former in the salvation of human persons, the latter within the community of the Church.

Luke 1:54: The final two verses of the hymn represent another synthetic parallelism, beginning here with God’s help or assistance for his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. The language used here is drawn from the Greek of Isa 41:8–14, which is promising God’s deliverance to Israel from her enemies, despite Israel’s weakness and its own corruption. Isaiah here also places Israel as a servant in parallel with the seed of Abraham, just as the following verse will. God’s remembrance of his mercy is a phrase drawn from Ps 97:3 (Greek), in which it is posited as the motivation for God displaying his salvation, which salvation is there associated (v. 1) with the might of God’s arm. The salvation which God promised in his mercy and compassion upon Israel is now going to be displayed openly through the Theotokos’ son.

Luke 1:55: The final verse of the hymn parallels the servant, Israel, with the seed of Abraham, making explicit the idea of the fulfillment of promises spoken to Israel’s fathers.  The language here is developed from the Greek of Mic 7:20, the concluding verse of Micah’s prophecy which sounds the hopeful note that the promises given to the fathers, specifically to Abraham, will find their fulfillment and come to fruition when God returns to his people and has compassion upon them.  This return of God to his people is here seen as taking place in the birth of Jesus, who will bring these promises to fruition. The language of the promise being to the singular seed unto the age is identical to the language of 2 Sam 22:51, with one significant difference. In 2 Sam, it is the seed of David, not of Abraham, to whom the promise is extended. Drawing together these two passages, St. Luke here unites the hope of Israel as a whole, the promises given to Abraham her father, to the messianic hope of a son of David. Therefore, in the birth of Jesus, the seed of Abraham, the seed of David, God will return to his people as king, fulfilling all of the hope and promises made to Israel throughout her preceding history. These promises are ultimately to a singular seed (Gal 3:16), through whom all of Israel is redeemed from captivity, both foreign and from her own rulers, and even her own sinfulness, exalted, and filled with good things.

Luke 1:56: Finally, as a conclusion to this pericope, St. Luke narrates that the Theotokos remained with St. Elizabeth for three months, bringing the latter very close to the time of delivery for her child, and then returned to her own home.  The episode here related, then, is not simply an encounter. It is an extended period of fellowship between the two women, and by extension, as described in the episode between their unborn sons. It is a period of time spent together for which Mary had to undertake a long journey, followed by a long journey back. This final note, then, reemphasizes the unity between the Forerunner and Jesus which is a theme of the entire first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel.

The episode of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and the Magnificat contained therein, represent both a deep grounding of the narrative which is to come in the scriptures, and the preceding acts of God in relation to his people Israel, and a prophetic foreshadowing of salvation as understood by Luke, as it will unfold in the remainder of the gospel, and be proclaimed by the apostles in the book of Acts. Jesus who is coming to be born is portrayed as the one who will deliver Israel from enemies spiritual and material, and even the people’s own sin and iniquity. The salvation which is portrayed as here coming in Christ is neither a novum nor a cosmic, mythological, or philosophical concept. Rather, it follows the pattern of and represents the fulfillment of, the way in which God has, in his mercy, helped and saved his people throughout the ages. At its height, this passage even gives the first intimations of Christ’s divine identity as it will be revealed in the narrative to come, through the life of Jesus in history.


About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.