Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Origins of Magnificat

This Sunday's Gospel reading from Luke details the meeting of two expectant mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, and includes what is called "The Magnificat".

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’And Mary said, 
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, 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 for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts 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 ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
Also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary, there are many beautiful musical renditions available, and the video I chose for this blog today is one that I highly recommend.

Sermons today will not be able to dodge the Magnificat although some may try use it as a way to work in a plug for the social gospel message. I would advise listeners to such sermons to focus on how Mary's hymn points to the Lord's greatness, strength, mercy, and trustworthiness (He keeps His promises) and how we respond to our realization that He is present in the world.

I have always wondered about how the author of Luke came to know the Song of Mary. It must have been well known at the time.

From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops comes this speculation,

"Although Mary is praised for being the mother of the Lord and because of her belief, she reacts as the servant in a psalm of praise, the Magnificat. Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story. Even if not composed by Luke, it fits in well with themes found elsewhere in Luke: joy and exultation in the Lord; the lowly being singled out for God’s favor; the reversal of human fortunes; the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. The loose connection between the hymn and the context is further seen in the fact that a few Old Latin manuscripts identify the speaker of the hymn as Elizabeth, even though the overwhelming textual evidence makes Mary the speaker."

Elsewhere, we find in 1 Samuel 2 Hannah singing a song of praise which is very similar to Mary's song:

Hannah also prayed and said, "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones; but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed."
Notice the parallels,

Hannah: My heart exalts in the Lord; I rejoice in thy salvation.
Mary: My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Hannah: There is none holy like the Lord.
Mary: Holy is his name.

Hannah: The bows of the mighty are broken but the feeble gird on strength.
Mary: He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.

Hannah: Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
Mary: He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Similar events may elicit similar words of praise, or Mary was applying the themes she had learned from Hannah's song to her own.

When we praise or give thanks to God, don't we usually paraphrase what we have heard before either in collects, hymns or Psalms?

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