On this first day of the liturgical New Year, and throughout Advent, we’ll be singing a Magnificat instead of the lectionary Psalm. “A Magnificat?” You ask. “What is that?” Magnificat is a fancy name for Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55, which begins with the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Psalms and Canticles are often named for their opening phrase in Latin; over time “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” has been shortened to Magnificat. (A canticle, by the way, is a non-Psalm biblical song.)
With that little lesson in liturgical Latin out of the way, we can move on to the significance of Mary’s song.
The first thing you’ll notice in the opening chapters of Luke is that it is bursting with melody. These chapters read like a script for a musical! The angels, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon all respond to the good news of Christ by breaking into song. I hope the musician in me is not reading too much into this, but I think the passage suggests that singing should be a natural part of our response to God. Thankful, joyful hearts don’t simply assent to truth—they overflow in song!
A look at the content of the Magnificat is also remarkable. Mary’s song begins with praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” But she moves on from there, contrasting her own lowliness with the great things God will do in her, and recalling God’s faithfulness to his people through the generations. Then she gets downright political: “He has scattered the proud.” “He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly.” “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Mary was no shrinking violet—she was a believer who studied God’s past faithfulness and projected her trust forward into her own social, cultural and political reality.
It is no accident that Mary’s song bears a striking resemblance to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Like a jazz musician riffing on a standard, Mary improvises on Hannah’s song, applying the themes to her own situation. (Hannah did her own improvising, echoing themes from Psalm 113 in her song.) It is perfectly fitting that one miraculously expectant mother would borrow from another when crafting her song of joy. This is a good lesson for us: Mary and Hannah not only expressed their own emotions, they were so steeped in God’s character and the history of God’s people that they were able to express themselves as part of a larger, even more wonderful story.
The musical settings we’ll sing throughout Advent will help us peel back some of the layers in this story. While many art works and musical settings depict Mary as a frightened girl, that was only part of the story. Yes, she would have been afraid. In fact, the first thing the angel says to her is “Do not be afraid.” But she was also an obedient servant, hearing this strange angelic message and quickly answering, “let it be with me according to your word.” We’ll even get to Mary, the teenage rebel, as depicted in Rory Cooney’s “The Canticle of the Turning.” It’s as if she rolls up her sleeves and says, “Let’s do this thing.” Given the text of the Magnificat, this is perfectly good exegesis.
This Advent, what is your soul’s story? What are you bursting out in song about? What is God growing in you? Are you rooted in God’s word and practicing holy improvisation? When your world turns with Good News (and bad), which Mary do you identify with most—fearful, obedient, ready to fight? And from which Mary do you most need to learn? May we all experience a Magnificat moment this Advent.
Can’t tell a Magnificat from the Song of Mary? Contact Greg Scheer (firstname.lastname@example.org).