The Magnificat by Robert C. Tannehill

Mary’s poetic statement of praise in Luke 1:46-55 is traditionally called the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin translation of this text. There is a long history of the use of the Magnificat in Christian liturgy and as a text in choral music.

The Magnificat is both conservative and revolutionary, both personal and social in perspective. It is conservative because it affirms the fulfillment of ancient promises to Israel but revolutionary because it proclaims the overturn of society. It is personal because it initially focuses on Mary, but it suggests that God’s choice of her—a person of low status—represents in miniature what God is doing for the poor and powerless in general.

The poetic structure of the Magnificat creates a dynamic combination of the four contrasting perspectives mentioned above. The Magnificat falls into two sections (Luke 1:47-50, Luke 1:51-55) that present first the personal and then a broad social perspective on what God is doing. Mary begins by celebrating what God has done for her personally (Luke 1:47-49). Luke 1:48 and Luke 1:49 begin with “for,” followed by the reason for Mary’s praise—a remarkable act of God in her favor. In the second section, Mary also celebrates God’s amazing action, now with especially vivid and dramatic language, and here the perspective broadens to God’s action in society. Both sections end with a reference to God’s mercy through the ages, and Luke 1:54-55 relates God’s mercy specifically to God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants.

The first section of the Magnificat celebrates the surprising choice of a girl of low status for the honor of bearing the Messiah. There is an immense gap in status between the “lowliness” of the girl and “the Mighty One” who has chosen her, enhancing the wonder of the event. The key concepts of lowly and mighty are developed in the second section, but a third party is introduced: humans who are “proud,” “powerful,” and “rich.” God’s strength appears in bringing down the human powers and lifting up the “lowly” and “hungry.” Both social status and economic status are in mind, and the powerful and rich are regarded as oppressors of the poor. The development of the Magnificat from section one to section two shows that God’s choice of a girl of low status to bear the Messiah is emblematic of what God is doing in society more broadly, where God is intervening to bring down oppressors and lift up the socially abased and poverty stricken.

The Magnificat is one of a series of angelic announcements and prophetic hymns in Luke’s infancy narrative. Together these texts provide a theological context for understanding the whole of Luke-Acts. In particular, they link this long narrative to the Hebrew Scripture’s hopes for redemption of God’s people. God’s salvation will be offered to the Gentiles later in Luke’s story, but this salvation must also embrace the Jews in order to fulfill what Mary is proclaiming.

Robert C. Tannehill, "The Magnificat", n.p. [cited 28 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/magnificat

Contributors

Robert C. Tannehill

Robert C. Tannehill
Emeritus Professor, Methodist Theological School

Robert C. Tannehill is retired from his position as professor of New Testament at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He is the author of “The Magnificat as Poem,” published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, and The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, vol. 1 (Fortress Press, 1986) and Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, 1996).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Account, such as in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, of events surrounding Jesus' birth.

The standardized collection of practices—ceremonies, readings, rituals, songs, and so forth—related to worship in a religious tradition.

The textual tradition of two New Testament books, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which scholars consider to have the same author or origin; Luke-Acts may even constitute a two-part work chronicling the life and works of Jesus and the subsequent organizing done by his apostles.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Luke 1:46-55

Mary's Song of Praise
46And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of ... View more

Luke 1:47-50

47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me bless ... View more

Luke 1:51-55

51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lift ... View more

Luke 1:47-49

47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me bless ... View more

Luke 1:48

48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

Luke 1:49

49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

Luke 1:54-55

54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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