Last year, in following the passages for the fourth Sunday in Advent offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, I wrote about the scriptural resonances in the Annunciation—that scene when Mary is informed by an angel that she is pregnant and will bear a son (Luke 1:26–38). This is such a classic “Old Testament” scene. See
This year, for the fourth Sunday in Advent, the lectionary offers the Visitation—a scene that take place after the pregnant Mary travels to visit a town in the hill country of Judaea, in the house of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, an elderly relative of Mary (Luke 1:39–45). This scene also is rich with scriptural resonances.
More than this, the lectionary offers as the Psalm, the song which Mary sang after meeting Elizabeth—a song known by tradition as the Magnificat (1:46–55). It makes sense, of course, for a song that Mary most likely sang in Aramaic, and which is known to us from a Greek text, to be given a Latin title (not!). Such is the power of the western Roman Catholic Church, whose liturgy was in Latin for many centuries.
Providing the Magnificat as the Psalm for the week has a certain poetic justice. Although this is part of the New Testament, this hymn is certainly a song in the mode of the psalms, as they are found in the book of that name in Hebrew Scripture. Indeed, such psalms are found not only in the book of Psalms, but in other places in those scriptures. Songs in the manner of psalms are scattered throughout the stories of the lives of the people of Israel—including into the century we identify as “the first century” (CE).
Included in these psalms are some striking songs. The Song of Miriam and the Song of Moses, both sung after the crossing of the Red Sea, are psalms of thanksgiving (Exod 15:21, and 15:1–18), whilst the Song of Moses at the end of his life recounts the story of the people (Deut 32:1–43). The Song of Deborah celebrates the defeat of Sisera of Canaan (Judges 5), whilst there are two Songs of David outside the book of Psalms: a psalm of thanksgiving after a series of battles with the Philistines (2 Sam 22) and another thanksgiving psalm after the ark was set inside the Tabernacle in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:8–36).
Some prophetic books include psalms, such as a psalm of Hezekiah after he had recovered from illness (Isa 38:9-20), a psalm sung by Jonah from the belly of the fish that had swallowed him (Jon 2:1–10), and a prayer of praise sung by Habakkuk (Hab 3).
And then, at the beginning of the story of Samuel, his mother, Hannah, offers a long prayer in the manner of psalms of thanksgiving (1 Sam 2:1–10). We heard this song just a few weeks ago, on the penultimate Sunday of Year B (Pentecost 33). This particular psalm is most important when we come to consider the song sung about a later prophet, Jesus, by his mother, Mary (Luke 1:46–55).
We know that Jesus is intensely Jewish in the Synoptic Gospels. The story about Jesus begins in the heart of Jewish piety, and continues apace within the life of the people of Israel through his lifetime.
The opening scene of the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us (Luke’s Gospel), set in Jerusalem in the Temple precincts, reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). The first person we meet, Zechariah the priest, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9).
His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). They are both described as “righteous before God” (1:6). Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate, bearing a child, with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55, known as the Magnificat), Zechariah (1:67–79, known as the Benedictus), and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). These songs set the strongly Jewish tone of the opening chapters.
The key characters operate as people of deep faith. God’s Spirit is active in these scenes; Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), whilst Elizabeth and Zechariah are both “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67). It is presumably that same Spirit which generates Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary and her unborn child (1:42, 45) as well as the prescient movement of the unborn John in Elizabeth’s womb, on meeting with Mary (1:44). In a subsequent scene, Simeon is “righteous and devout” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
This is the same Spirit that has been active since the moment of creation (Gen 1:2), that was breathed into human beings (Gen 2:7), and that infuses every one of the creatures brought into being in God’s wonderful creation (Ps 104:24–30). It is this Spirit that has endowed individuals with leadership (Exod 31:2–3; Num 11:25–26; Deut 34:9; and a number of judges) and which has inspired prophets to proclaim the word of the Lord (Isa 61:1; Ezek 2:2; Joel 2:28–29).
Mary stands in the long Jewish tradition of female singers. The story of the Exodus culminates in a short song from Miriam (Exod 15:21). Other females who sing of salvation at key moments in the story include Deborah (Judges 5:1–31), Hannah (1 Sam 2:1–10), and Judith (Judith 16:1–17). These are the victory songs of the oppressed.
The two scenes involving Hannah and Mary have a number of parallels. The language and the events resonate with each other across the centuries. It seems to me that the author of this orderly account (by tradition, Luke) is well-read and very capable in his writing style. This whole section is shaped to read like a Hebrew Scripture narrative. So, in my understanding of Luke 1–2, the author has been influenced by the story of Hannah as he tells the story of Mary.
Indeed, we note this in the way the two songs begin. Hannah commences by singing out “my heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God” (1 Sam 2:1). This is deliberately echoed in Mary’s song, where she begins “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46).
Hannah describes God as the Holy One (2:2) and the Most High (2:10). Holy One is a term applied to God in the Writings (Ps 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Job 6:10; Sir 4:14; 23:9; 53:10; 47:8; 48:20) and by the Prophets (Is 1:4; 5:19, 24; and a further 24 times; Jer 50:29; Ezek 8:13; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3). Of course, Holiness was a central element of piety in ancient Israel, exemplified by the Holiness Code of Leviticus (Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7–8; see also Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 28:9). The followers of Jesus are instructed to consider themselves as God’s holy people (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19; Eph 5:25–27; Col 1:22; 3:12; Heb 3:1; 1 Pet 1:13–16; 2:5, 9) and to live accordingly.
Most High is also a very common way that God is described and addressed—23 times in the Psalms (Ps 7:17; 9:2; 18:13; etc) and a number of times elsewhere (Gen 14:17–24; Num 24:16; Deut 32:8; 1 Sam 2:10; 2 Sam 22:14; Isa 14:14; Lam 3:35, 38; Dan 3:26; 4:2, 17, 24, 25 and more; Hos 11:7; and also Wis Sol 5:15; 6:3; and 45 times in Sirach—4:10; 7:9, 15; 9:15, etc). It appears as a description of God in early Christian writings (Mark 5:7; Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35: 8:28; Acts 7:48: 16:17).
Mary uses a similarly-familiar term, the Mighty One (1:49), which also is a biblical name for God (Gen 49:24; Ps 45:3; 50:1: 52:1; 132:2, 5; Isa 1:24; 49:26; 60:16; Sir 46:5–6, 16; 51:12), and then she goes on to affirm, “holy is his name”, alluding directly to the title of Holy One that Hannah has used.
Hannah’s declaration that “my strength is exalted in my God” (2:1) is echoed in Mary’s affirmation that “he has shown strength with his arm” (1:51). That strength is demonstrated in a series of claims made by Mary, regarding the proud, the powerful, and the rich, in contrast to the lowly and the hungry (1:51–53).
The clear juxtaposition of these categories, and God’s obvious preference for the latter group, is another way in which Mary’s song echoes and replicates Hannah’s song. Hannah’s “he brings low, he also exalts” (2:7) is expanded by Mary, “he has brought down the powerful, he has lifted up the lowly” (1:52). “He raises up the poor from the dust, lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour” (2:8) is reworked by Mary into her note that God “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:53).
In these ways, it is clear that the righteous-justice desired by God for the people of God will in fact be evident; “the Lord will judge the ends of the earth” (2:10), sings Hannah; “he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy” (1:54) is how Mary sings it. Both justice and mercy are fundamental aspects of the being of God which are worked out in the ways that God engages with the people of Israel. God is envisaged and experienced in the same way in each of these songs. The God of Hannah continues to be the God of Mary. These two songs strongly confirm that reality.
What Hannah is celebrating is that God will be at work in the events of her time. In particular, despite her barren state (1 Sam 1:2, 5–8), Hannah prayed regularly for a son (1 Sam 2:10–18) and was blessed with just such a child: “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son” (1 Sam 2:20, 27). Likewise, what Mary anticipates is that God will demonstrate the ongoing fulfilment of the promises made to Israel in the birth of her child given to her, despite her state as a virgin (Luke 1:27, 34).
Both newborn sons are dedicated to the Lord: Hannah’s son was dedicated as a nazirite (1 Sam 2:11, 22, 24–28), Mary’s son is recognised as the one who will have “the throne of David given to him” and who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33). The son of Hannah is dedicated in “the house of the Lord at Shiloh” (1 Sam 2:24); the son of Mary is circumcised (Luke 1:21) and then taken “to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 1:22). The two stories mirror each other in the same way that the two songs run in parallel to each other.
So Mary affirms that “all generations will call me blessed” (1:48), in the same way that Leah exclaimed, “blessed am I! for the women will call me blessed”. (Gen 30:13). Her song ends with the claim that the promise being fulfilled is made “to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (1:55), evoking the prayer of David, that the Lord “shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever” (2 Sam 22:50). The exalting of the anointed is also noted at the very end of the song sung by Hannah (1 Sam 2:10).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, declared that the Magnificat, this song of Mary, “is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings… This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” (From a sermon during Advent on December 17, 1933; see http://cdn.bakerpublishinggroup.com/processed/esource-assets/files/1780/original/8.40.Luke_1.46-55__The_World%27s_First_Advent_Hymn.pdf?1524151427)
Martin Luther declared, “the mightier you are, the more must you fear; the lowlier you are, the more must you take comfort.” Pope John Paul II noted the scholarly view that this song, as well as the songs by Zechariah and Simeon, are songs of the anawim (the faithful poor), whose songs offer “glorious praise of God … thanksgiving for the great things done by the Mighty One, the battle against the forces of evil, solidarity with the poor and fidelity to the God of the Covenant” (in a general audience on Psalm 149 on Wednesday 23 May 2001; see https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20010523.html)
Sister Elizabeth Johnson sums it up well,
“The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted. People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims”.
My colleague Sarah Agnew has written this fine reflective poem on Mary’s Song: https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2018/12/marys-song-holy-is.html
Another colleague, Glen Powell, has just composed and recorded this wonderfully fresh version of this ancient song: https://youtu.be/S1ypHkyZvU0