Canticle 9, first part (Luke 1:46-55); 1 Sam 2:1-10; 2 Cor 10:15; Gen 22:17-18
The first part of canticle 9, called the Magnificat, has been beloved for centuries. It is the song of rejoicing and triumph of our Mother, and stands in an initial place of Luke’s Gospel, as well as studding our worship services. Many of us also use it in personal worship, because it informs us with godly trust and humility. Though it is shorter than the other canticles, it is worth lingering over:
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant.
For, behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.
His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy,
according to the promise He made to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
Let’s place this song in the context of its gospel. The young Theotokos has just gone for a visit to Elizabeth, since the angel has told her that her aging cousin is, by God’s grace, to have a son. When she arrives, the unborn baby John leaps in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and makes a prophetic statement about Mary, the “mother of my LORD” coming to visit her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” The older cousin’s humility and joy in the blessedness of the Theotokos reminds us of the words of King David, who first ask “show can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?” and then finally brings it with all solemnity and joy into Bethlehem, his city (2 Sam/2 Kingdoms 6:9-15). Mary, the living Ark of the LORD, is in Elizabeth’s presence. The strong presence of Elizabeth, an older and previously infertile woman, also reminds those of us who know the Old Testament of the rejoicing Hannah, whose song we considered earlier in this series. We shall see that there are some parallels and contrasts between Hannah’s song and that of the Theotokos.
As soon as we hear the young Virgin-Mother speak, we are amazed. She tells us that her soul “magnifies the LORD.” How can a human person magnify God? God, after all, fills the whole of creation, and indeed is too large for the creation to contain Him. As the book of Revelation, and the Christmas hymn put it, “Heaven and earth will flee away when He comes to reign!” (Christian Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” cf. Rev 20:11). But we know that even the body, the womb, of the Theotokos was made “more spacious than the universe,” so that it could contain the One who has made all things. As with her body, so now with her soul: “My soul magnifies the LORD!” Of course, it is not that the Theotokos makes the LORD bigger—that is impossible, for He contains all things. But she SHOWS His greatness to first her cousin, then to the entire world, in her poignant hymn. This young woman opens her mouth and praises: out of the mouth of babes and young virgins has He ordained praise. And the theme of her praise is that the LORD is her Savior, and the Savior of all!
After all, she has much by which to show God’s greatness: she is both humble, and blessed. Her soul and her spirit rejoice, because of what He has done in her body—and with her consent, of course! –“for He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant;” “for the Mighty One has done great things for me!” Certainly, the words here remind us of Hannah, who was made fruitful by God after long years of pain; but in what sense is the conception of Jesus a great thing for Mary herself? We tend to think of this gift as something presented to the whole of humankind, and perhaps forget the honor given to the Theotokos herself. To have this special intimacy with God the Son, to be given the heart-breaking privilege of nurturing, both in the womb, and at the breast, and then as He matured, the God-Man—what could be greater than that? For the Theotokos, there was also a sword that pierced, as St. Simeon foretold; but first, and afterwards, there was the sweetness of playing human host to God Incarnate, and then being mother to the entire Church. All generations rightly call her blessed!
The blessed Virgin Mary says that everything is contingent on what God has done. But she also participates in God’s action, saying “yes” to Gabriel, and actively giving her strength, her energy, her soul, and spirit, and body, to the most important event humanity has ever known. Her song pulls from the entire history of Israel, reminding us of God’s mercy from generation to generation. In this sense, it has a brighter tone than that of her ancestor Hannah, who knew also of God raising up the humble, but spends more time admonishing those who are proud in her song of praise. The emphasis of the Theotokos is more on God’s strength, His eternal memory of the humble, and the unity of God’s family in experiencing His mercy.
Yet there is a reminder that when He comes, He also confounds the proud, sending the rich away empty, scattering them, bringing down those who seem to have authority from their stolen thrones. These actions of judgment, though, are surrounded in the song of the Theotokos by reminders of God’s great mercy and clemency, the major theme of the hymn. If Hannah’s song was a warning to the proud (something understandable given the scorn of that other wife who had born sons!), holy Mary’s song is mainly a call to humble rejoicing! Its brighter tone fits the great surprise of God visiting us in a young woman’s body, and coming for the falling AND rising of many in Israel, to bring light to the nations.
And this the Theotokos glimpses, when she speaks of the Seed of Abraham. Where Hannah’s song speaks at its conclusion of the “horn” of God’s anointed king being exalted, her descendant Mary reminds us of the “seed of Abraham”: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, according to the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” We look back, because of this phrase in the Magnificat, to God’s oath to Abraham regarding what would come later:
I will surely bless you, and I will surely make your seed as great as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 22:17-18).
Some have understood this to be simply a promise of many descendants, and of the final triumph of Israel over the nations. However, St. Paul, reading Genesis, as the apostles were taught by Jesus himself (Luke 24), as pointing forward to Jesus, understands the singular word “seed” to be, first and foremost, referring to our incarnate LORD, the seed of Abraham and David. He says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ” (Gal 3:16). So initially, the promise given to Abraham is for JESUS, the One who shines like the sun (not simply the stars) at the Transfiguration, the One who possesses the gate of the greatest enemies— Satan, sin, and death—and the One by whom all the nations are blessed. Through Him, in fact, we become ourselves “sons of Abraham,” for God can raise up sons from everywhere, not simply among Israel. Jesus becomes the fulfillment of all longings, for God’s first historical people, Israel, and for the whole of humanity. He brings the story of Adam AND the story of Israel to its great climax.
The Theotokos is on the cusp of this great action of God, and has heard already from Gabriel, St. Symeon, St. Anna, and now her cousin Elizabeth, that God is doing a new thing, bringing all to salvation from Satan, sin, and death. And so she exemplifies humility and joy, focusing upon the LORD’s actions, rather than detailing those who will be terrified, and directing the hearer not to be proud, as with the song of Hannah. In the Theotokos, and her joyful song that magnifies the LORD, we see the very best picture of the advice given to us by the apostle Paul: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Cor 10:17). For in her body, in her spirit, in her soul, we see the most concrete evidence of the LORD who remembers us, saves, and blesses us, children of Abraham and of God, from age to age—and forever!