“The Annunciation,” Fra Angelico

The Magnificat is simply the Latin term for Mary’s song of praise as found in Luke 1: 46-55 as she joyfully responds to the message that she will bear the Son of God.   The Latin phrase “magnificat anima meum” is translated “my soul magnifies the Lord.”  Remember, Latin was the official ecclesiastical language of all Western Christendom until the Reformation, and the Roman Catholics retained its use up to the 1960s.  To refer to major sections of the bible in Latin, particularly the psalms or songs, was not unusual.  Many of us still refer to the Te Deum, the Nunc Dimittis, or the Sanctus.

I am always struck by the similarity between Hannahs’s song in 1 Samuel 2 and the Magnificat.  Hannah had prayed for a child, but none had been given to her.  Consequently, she was in “great anguish” (I Sam. 1: 16b.)  However, the Lord blessed her with a son, Samuel, who would become a great prophet.  She sings this song in joyful response as she dedicates Samuel in the Temple.  Consider its similarity to the Magnificat of the New Testament:

My heart rejoices in the Lord;  in the Lord my horn is lifted high.  My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in Your deliverance. . . the bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.  Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.

Both Hannah’s song and later Mary’s song contrast the lowly and weak with the mighty and powerful.  The imagery of the mighty falling and the poor being lifted speaks metaphorically of the reality of Christ and His Church.  He was born in a humble stable and was crucified as a criminal, but yet He was simultaneously King of the Jews and King of Creation.  The similarity between Hannah’s song, sung hundreds of years before Mary was born, and Mary’s own song, demonstrates that Mary most likely knew the Hebrew scriptures so thoroughly that her spontaneous “song” was either consciously or unconsciously shaped by this old song which she had read many times.  Mary’s thorough grounding in Scripture—so complete that even her spontaneous thoughts cannot stray from Scripture’s principles–may give some human evidence as to why God might have chosen her above any other to bear Christ.   

Mary’s song is profound in many ways.  She acknowledges that “From now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1: 48b.)   Most “Protestants” are fearful of undue reverence toward Mary.  Yet, this has perhaps led to many not sufficiently appreciating Mary as the theotokos, the bearer of God.  Mary’s song is one of humility.  She even states that the Lord “has been mindful of the humble state of His servant.”  As in Hannah’s song, Mary makes a sharp contrast between the rich and poor and the powerful and lowly.  Clearly, Mary sees herself as lowly, having only been “lifted up” because “the Mighty One has done great things for me.”  She does not boast. . . never does she give herself credit for being “worthy” of the honor.

The Magnificat is one of the traditional canticles for Evensong.