This past Sunday began the Advent season, when special focus is given to Christ’s first and second comings. So in this post I offer some reflections on Mary’s Song—the Magnificat, and the surrounding context that makes it the first gospel hymn of the New Testament.
The glad tidings of Genesis 3:15—namely, that God will give Eve an offspring who will crush the serpent’s head—creates faith. Yet it also initiates a war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent that will become the story behind all of the stories in the Bible. Upon giving birth to her firstborn son, Eve exclaimed, “Behold, I have brought forth [the] man!” Yet he was not the promised Messiah, but the first antichrist and persecutor of the church. Already in Genesis 4, the serpent seeks to destroy the seed of the woman who will crush his head, as Cain slays Abel. Yet God replaces Abel with Seth. Each time the baton falls from the hands of one bearer of the promise, God raises up another runner to pass it to the next. This is the ultimate reason why every mother in Israel was so concerned about having children. Who will continue this relay race? God promised a Savior of the world to Abraham and Sarah through Sarah’s womb, yet she was nearly a century old. This royal couple had to believe God’s promise in spite of everything that they saw in their circumstances or experienced in their own life. They were not holier than others; in fact, they both questioned God’s promise even up to the moment when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Yet they were blessed and in their seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. By the way, when Paul speaks of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:15 and adds that enigmatic line about women being “saved through childbirth,” I believe that this is what he had in mind. Many evangelical commentators treat this as a more generic ethical encouragement to motherly domesticity, but that seems to me to be another form of salvation by works. Israel’s mothers were not trying to save themselves by their act of childbearing; rather, they were longing to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah.
God’s promise is tied to history—so tied to it, in fact, that the Messiah can only come through a single line. The scarlet cord of redemption was threaded through the smallest eye of the thinnest needle. At key junctures, it seemed as if the serpent had triumphed. There was young Joash, the only royal survivor of the wicked Queen Athaliah’s purge of the House of David. Besides direct assisination, the serpent also attempted to lure Israel into apostasy. Eventually, Israel was sent into exile for having so thoroughly violated the covenant. Yet even in Babylon, mothers of Israel continued to hope in the promise that one day, one of them—or one of their daughters—might be the mother of the Messiah.
And now, the great Caesar Augustus reigns over most of the civilized world, including Palestine, under Quirinius, Governor of Syria. Herod is the puppet-king of the Jews, who fancies himself the messianic heir. Not being a lineal descendent of David, neither his pedigree nor his rebuilding of the Temple impress the Pharisees with his credentials as the messianic heir. From the perspective of the Gospels, particularly in his massacre of Bethlehem’s infants, he is just another antichrist.
It is into this world of competing kings and their kingdoms that we discover an obscure girl in an equally obscure part of the world, who receives the most extraordinary announcement and becomes the first evangelist of the new covenant.
A Royal Hope
The story of Zacharias and Elizabeth and also of Mary is a redrawing of the Elkanah and Hannah story of 1 Sam. 1:1-2:11. Like Sarah and Rebekah, Hannah is barren. On the steps of the Tabernacle of God’s Presence, Hannah offers a desperate prayer: “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head” (v.11). In other words, she would give him to the service of the Nazarite order. Eli the priest told Hannah that her prayer would be answered, offering the familiar benediction, “Go in peace.” Nine months later, she who was barren gave birth to Samuel, “Heard By God.” Upon presenting her son to Eli, Hannah composed a song to the Lord:
My heart rejoices in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation…The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and brings up from the grave. 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 by strength shall no man prevail. The enemies 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.
The parallels with Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and the mother of John the Baptist, are significant. Like Hannah, Elizabeth is barren but receives a heavenly promise of a son and believes it. Both sons are given up to the Nazarite order, refusing wine or strong drink or to cut his hair. Hannah’s son Samuel will announce judgment upon Eli’s house; Elizabeth’s son John will announce judgment upon the whole house of Israel.
At last, the great announcement arrives that every faithful Hebrew mother had hoped to hear. An angel appears to a young virgin and, as Eli announced to Hannah the birth of a son, so Mary hears the staggering words which for ages every mother in Israel since Eve had hoped to hear. Mary and Joseph are descended from the royal house of David. Like her cousin, Mary is a direct descendant of Aaron, the priestly line. Joseph is descended from the royal line (the house of David), and in adopting Jesus makes the priestly son the royal heir. He is already named–not by Mary, but by the Heavenly Council from all ages. Like successor to Moses who led Israel into the Holy Land, he will be named Joshua, “Yahweh Saves,” but this liberator will be laden with such titles as, “Son of the Highest,” and “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom there will be no end.” Although she is a virgin, the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her and her child “will be called the Son of God.” “With God, nothing is ever impossible” (v 37).
Mary’s initial reaction to the angel Gabriel’s strange announcement was typical of covenant servants when God issued his improbable promises: “How can I be sure of this?” Recall God’s promise of a son to Abram through Sarai. Even after he believes and is justified, he still asks, “How can I be sure of this?” And God confirms his promise by walking through the severed halves. Mary’s confirmation—the sacrament attached to his promise—is the pregnancy of her barren cousin Elizabeth. Gabriel preaches the gospel into Mary and she finds herself believing it: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be done unto me according to your word.” Notice again that she is the passive recipient, not the active party. It’s an announcement, not an offer or a game-plan.
Upon receiving this Good News, not only for herself, but for the whole human race, Mary hurries to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who is now pregnant with the one who will prepare the highway for God’s arrival.
A Royal Visit
Perhaps out of both joy and a desire for confirmation, Mary hurries to her cousin’s house in the hill country. After all, the angel had said that barren Elizabeth is now in her sixth month. If that is confirmed, Mary has all the more reason to leap for joy. Faith is never a blind leap in the dark. God condescends to our weakness, confirming his promise along the way.
Hardly intoning in gentle reverence, Elizabeth yelled, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It is similar to the greeting of Gabriel: “Greetings, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). Mary is blessed and favored; the verb is passive. It is God’s election and grace that have singled her out among all women. This is confirmed by Gabriel again in 1:32: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” It is a common Hebrew expression, announcing God’s unmerited favor. It is not only different from “worthy,” but the very opposite! And, as we’ll see, Mary even acknowledges this unworthiness in her song. The same verb used in Eph 1:6: “He has made us accepted [echarítōsen] in the Beloved.” It is not in judgment, but in grace that God has sent his heavenly ambassador with good news. “Blessed” doesn’t just mean “happy.” It’s not just a subjective feeling; it’s an objective fact. Calvin observes, “She is justly called blessed on whom God bestowed the remarkable honor of bringing into the world his own Son, through whom she had been spiritually renewed. And to this very day, the blessedness brought to us by Christ cannot be the subject of our praise without reminding us at the same time of the distinguished honor which God was pleased to bestow on Mary, in making her the mother of his only-begotten Son.”
Again, none of this makes sense apart from the Jewish story. Apart from the Jewish expectations, this is a remarkable case of over-acting. If the magnitude of Jesus’s identity was measured only in terms of his teachings and ministry, it would have been strange for Elizabeth to lose her composure at Mary’s mere pregnancy.
The structure of Elizabeth’s expression in verse 42 is that of a Hebrew song translated into Greek prose. It’s one of five songs that cluster around the nativity story. Celebration! In each of these songs, it is God who is the object of praise as the one who has fulfilled his promise: he has shown favor to the lowly and lifted up the downcast.
This exuberance is further expressed: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” The Judean hill country was a good distance, so it’s conceivable that they didn’t see much of each other. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Elizabeth had ever greeted her young relative in a similar manner before. A simple servant-girl is made the the Mother of Israel, superseding Eve, Sarah, Rebekah. More than the Mother of Israel, she is the Mother of God, since the one she bears is none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Elizabeth addresses her familiar relative as a subject greets a queen: “the mother of my Lord.” The parallelism here suggests that this is a song, typical of the Christmas songs in Luke: the Song of Elizabeth, the Song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Angels, and the Song of Simeon.
“Blessed,” so trivialized in much of Christian discourse today, was for Jews directly linked to this messianic longing for shalom, which encompassed everything related to salvation, individual and corporate. The “beatitude,” such as one finds in the Beatitudes, is neither simply this-worldly happiness nor an other-worldly “beatific vision,” an ecstatic spiritual experience. It is nothing like the portrait of a saint in a trance-like state of Stoic oblivion to the world. Still less is it captured by the smiling-face logo of the 1970s. Rather, this blessedness is a worldly condition of human beings together with all creatures, dwelling in peace, love, and joyful communion because God dwells in their midst as the source of their life and salvation. It is the vision of a creation no longer under the reign of sin and death, of the restoration of Israel after the exile, with a new temple and kingdom led by the promised Messiah.. This blessedness, this shalom, has now finally arrived and has begun with Mary, the first citizen of the kingdom of shalom. Finally, Elizabeth, speaking as God’s mouthpiece, assures Mary that she is blessed because she has believed (v.45). Like all who were justified by grace alone through faith alone, Mary has entered the rest of God’s shalom in spite of her underserving character. To miss this point and exalt Mary beyond sinful humanity is to miss the joy that she herself experienced.
But not only is Mary “blessed”; so too is her child. In fact, her blessed child is the source of her blessing. Already, the favor of Yahweh rests on Mary because of her Son. Thus Elizabeth confirms Mary’s pregnancy. Her royal treatment of Mary rests not on Mary herself, but on the fact that she is “the mother of my Lord.”
The Reformers avoided two errors at this point. On one hand, against Rome, Calvin pointed out that we pay a higher respect to Mary by taking her lead in extolling the gospel. “We cheerfully acknowledge her as our teacher, and obey her instructions and commands.” It is the followers of the pope who ignore her statements and injure her reputation.
On the other hand, the Anabaptists over-reacted, repeating the Nestorian heresy of separating Christ’s humanity from his deity. Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonites) would only say that Mary was the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God. In fact, he argued that Jesus took his flesh not from Mary but from heaven: a “celestial flesh.” This reduced Mary to nothing but a channel, Calvin observed. With the church catholic we confess that Mary is Theotokos—God-bearer, not to honor her but to affirm that the child she bears is in fact God incarnate. This is why the Reformed continue to affirm that Mary is the Mother of God. In fact, Anabaptism is the target of the Belgic Confession (Article 18): The “eternal Son” truly assumed our whole humanity
[B]eing conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit without the means of man; and did not only assume human nature as to the body, but also a true human soul, that He might be a real man…Therefore we confess (in opposition to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of His mother) that Christ partook of the flesh and blood of the children; that He is a fruit of the loins of David after the flesh; born of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of Mary; born of a woman; a branch of David; a shoot of the root of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since he took on him the seed of Abraham, and was made like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted; so that in truth He is our IMMANUEL, that is to say, God with us.”
The Tetrapolitan Confession, drafted by Martin Bucer, says that “the Mother of God should be honored most industriously.” This can only happen according to Bucer, “if one does, what she demands,” especially to honor her Son above all and to follow her example of faith and obedience.
The Reformers held Mary in high esteem because they held Christ in high esteem. Like Luther and Zwingli, Bucer believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary and under Bucer the Strasbourg church continued to celebrate the three Marian holidays. Although Reformed churches today see no biblical basis for Mary’s perpetual virginity (as Luther, Zwingli, and Bucer did) and do not celebrate the three Marian holidays (as Bucer did in Strasbourg), the Magnificat has always been included with the Psalms in the singing of Reformed churches. We must beware of obscuring the glory of Christ either by honoring Mary too much (raising her to a co-redemptive status) or by honoring her too little (undermining the true humanity that Christ assumed from her).
Mary clearly has a central role in the unfolding drama of redemption, but it’s not the central character. Nothing makes that more obvious than the Magnificat itself. We are alert to the Roman Catholic dangers of displacing Christ by Marian devotion. but we should also be on guard against a Gnostic view of the incarnation and a Nestorian separation of his two natures that can result from too low a view of Mary’s role in this unfolding story.
A Royal Song
Recall that Israel is still in exile awaiting God himself to visit his people in salvation and judgment. Exile and restoration form the over-arching themes of the Jewish expectation at this point.
The Magnificat explicitly repeats the Hebrew phrases found in Hannah’s song: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” “Holy is his name,” “…who scatters the proud,” “who has lifted up the humble,” and, “who has filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty.” But it also breathes characteristic lines from the Psalter.
The song begins with the recognition, first of all, that the one she will bear is her own Savior. Salvation comes not only to Israel, but to Mary. Yahweh is Mary’s salvation/shalom (vv.46-49). Mary is here assuming a central role in this story. It is being, in fact, redrawn around her and, more specifically, around the fruit of her womb. Like the opening of Hannah’s Song: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.” Mary too begins by viewing herself as the recipient of this shalom. The knowledge of salvation brings joy and “magnifies the Lord” rather than ourselves. Mary is magnified by God, but she does not magnify herself. She even acknowledges her own need of salvation, rejoicing “in God my Savior.” What is so remarkable is that she is the mother of “God my Savior.” A mother giving birth to her own king and liberator!
It is not just the world’s hopes, but her hopes, that rest upon this divine infant. God has not regarded her superior holiness or virtue, but her “lowly state.” Once again, we see God’s “upside-down” approach. His power is discovered in weakness; his riches in poverty; his glory in humiliation; his abounding grace in the abundance of human sinfulness. She says nothing about her making salvation possible, being co-redeemer with her Son, or being the mediator between her Son and us. “Well,” our Roman Catholic friends respond, “she did say yes. In that way, she made our salvation possible.” However, that requires not only addition to but subtraction from the lines that Mary actually delivers here. She takes her place with us as a recipient of grace. Because of God’s goodness, not her own, “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Why? “Because the Mighty One has done great things for me! Holy is his name. And his mercy extends from generation to generation to those who fear him” (v 49-50).
Mary’s Savior is also Israel’s salvation/shalom (vv.50-55). It is not just “me and my personal relationship with Jesus,” or “making Jesus your personal Lord and Savior.” He is the Lord and Savior! For those who were awaiting the Messiah, there was no personal salvation apart from Israel’s redemption and the blessings of peace and righteousness in the land.
“His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.” Again, this resting of mercy upon us is the advent of the kingdom of shalom. It’s that blessedness to which Paul refers: “Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.” Furthermore, this blessedness or mercy is “from generation to generation,” underscoring the covenantal rather than individualistic orientation. The “seed of the woman” has finally appeared who will crush the serpent’s head.
“He has shown the strength of his arm.” Once more, God shows his strength in human weakness, but this line is far richer even than that. Mary is calling upon centuries of Jewish stories and longings. In Isaiah 59, we are told that God was dismayed “that there was no one to intercede” for his people, so “his own arm brought salvation, and his righteousness upheld him” (Is 59:15-16). One day, Israel will not be left to false kings, false priests, and false prophets. Finally, he will himself descend and, with outstretched arm, part the waters of judgment as in the Red Sea, and allow his people to safely pass through. Mary is claiming the fulfillment of prophecy and herself as a witness to it.
“He has scattered the proud in the imaginations 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.” Revolutionary ideas! And we can’t merely spiritualize this away. The expectation was that when Messiah comes, the proud nations and oppressive rulers will be broken like pottery. When the tables are turned and God vindicates his covenant, the world will know that Yahweh is in charge, and not the idols. Thus, when John the Baptist, in prison, sends messengers to Jesus and asks, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”, Jesus replies, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (Mt.11:1-6). These are the expectations laid out in Isaiah. 35:5,6. Messiah’s kingdom will not be brought about by human energy—the so-called progress of history. Yet it is also not “pie in the sky bye and bye,” a Greek longing for disembodied eternal existence. It is in this world and for this world, but not of this world.
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” God has helped his servant Israel by becoming his servant Israel. The Messiah will finally be the true, faithful Israel, the Son of God’s own choosing. Further, God is moved to do this surely not by anything he sees in Israel, but “in remembrance of his mercy,” which was covenantally promised to the fathers, “to Abraham and his seed forever.” It is not on the basis of the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai, yet broke, but on the basis of that earlier covenant of pure mercy that God swore to Abraham and his seed, that blessing will come to the families of the whole earth. The child in Mary’s womb is Israel, God’s Servant and true Son, the new Abraham and the holy seed who will crush Satan’s head in triumph.
We have seen Mary take her divinely-appointed place in this unfolding historical drama, and, of course, she is at the center of the action—but as a recipient of the gospel and a herald. She is the first evangelist of the new covenant, even as the Savior she proclaims gestating in her womb. So let us learn by her example. Our passage from death to life is no less impossible from our side of things than Mary’s conception of God incarnate. Yet God announces the Good News to us, confirms it by his sacrament, and by his Spirit brings about within us the faith to say, “Behold, I am your servant. Let it be done unto me according to your word.” We have taken our place in that story, not content to stand on the sidelines, watching the actors and listening to their lines. You sing Mary’s song today with joyful hearts because you too are blessed in her Son. Though lowly and undeserving in ourselves, God has lifted us up and seated us with Christ in heavenly places to inherit his blessed shalom. If you are poor, in possessions and in righteousness, can you not find your hope this very day in the arm of Yahweh, who for our sakes became poor so that we might become rich in heavenly gifts? “His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”