And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
(Luke 1:46-47 NASB)
The Magnificat is one of the beginning ‘hymns’ included in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. This is the song of Mary sang when she visits her very elder relative, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John (the Baptist). Mary is very far from her immediate family visiting Elizabeth. Suddenly, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and affirms the angel’s proclamation to Mary. The pregnant teenager, Mary, then sings this song. It’s called the Magnificat in church tradition because that’s the first word in the Latin version of it.
This song, and the one that follows at John the Baptist’s birth, are two of several elements of Luke’s account that make his the most similar to the Hebrew Scriptures of all the other gospels. This song looks back to the Song of Mariam and Moses, the Song of Deborah and Barak, and so on. The form is similar, the content is similar, and the feel and sound is similar. If you read one of those, and then come back and read this one, you can see a lot of similarities. Except in length; this one is brief.
The poetic style is definitely Jewish. There are parallels, both similar and contrasting. The themes of reversal, blessings on the righteous, and failure of the wicked are very consistent and clear. And everything is ascribed to God, and the humble position of the ‘speaker’ are also a common features of Hebrew poetry. All together, this is a short poetic literary piece that makes this amazing young woman seem rather spectacular for her age in her culture. Allow me to explain:
First Century Education of Women?
I’m not exactly clear on the education level of women in first-century Palestine among the Jewish population. There have been archeological discoveries among the caves around Qumran that suggest that there was a degree of literacy of women for common daily and legal purposes (land and property transactions for instance). But I don’t know of similar evidence for the religious education beyond what they would get in a synagogue service. There could be evidence, though; in fact, this could be it.
For the poorer social families, the family unit subsisted on a daily basis. So there was plenty of work for everyone; for the women, around the house or in fields; and for the men, in fields or trades. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for other pursuits. So, any familiarity Mary would have had with such ‘songs’ in the religious writings of her people would have mostly come from synagogue services and perhaps a very small amount on her own.
Free Time to Travel – Alone?
This problem of ‘spare time’ also illuminates the oddity of Mary’s scampering off to visit Elizabeth for three months. The Scriptures says that Elizabeth hid herself for five months, and that it was in her sixth month that Mary learns of her own pregnancy. So, it is within possible options to have Mary sent off to help Elizabeth during her pregnancy. But then why only for three months? Probably because, at that point, Mary began to show herself. This is an enormous social/family problem, and the young lady was sent home, hopefully with Elizabeth’s full support.
The fact that Mary travels on her own (probably not actually alone) to Elizabeth, and stays, and so on, actually indicates to me that her family perceived her to be very capable, even beyond her years. It’s possible that Mary was recognized for her understanding, and conduct among the community.
Consider this, what if Mary traveled to Elizabeth with her mother or other very near relative, and Elizabeth ‘spouts off’ with her prophesy right there in front of them both? Luke makes no claim for any accusation on the part of Mary’s family of adultery later. Elizabeth, I’m sure, took her side, and that carried the extra weight of her own miraculous pregnancy. If you factor in Mary traveling with a ‘chaperone’ then the family would have been hard-pressed to explain how this could have happened. There’s actually substantial circumstantial evidence supporting Mary’s claim. Even so, this was extremely awkward for the family, both hers and Joseph’s.
Spontaneous Musical Composition?
So this song is sung by a young woman overwhelmed by what she has been called into. And it is made up of her experiences in the past few days, the songs of her people sung in the synagogues, and the adoration she has for her God who has done this to and for her and her people. Seriously, it sounds kind of like a musical where all the common everyday people seems to be these amazing spontaneous poets and singers (always the problem I have had with such plays and movies). Honestly, I find it difficult to compose in a set time and mindset for such things, forget on the fly especially with swirling emotions within me. Emotions and coherent thought do not mix well in my brain.
Mary saw what is happening to her as part of the dethroning of powers, the reversal of the rich and poor, and salvation for her people. That’s a pretty amazing perspective to have as a girl at her age among her people. That she has it clearly affirms the choice God made of this remarkable young woman. She is a good choice for the mother of Jesus. Notice that Scripture says that John the Baptist and Elizabeth were filled with the Holy Spirit, but doesn’t make that same claim for Mary. She is operating (as far as we can tell) just like everyone else, yet seemingly at a much higher level spiritually. THAT’s amazing!
What do you see of this young woman as you look through the knothole?