The Meaning of the Magnificat

Text: Luke 1:39-56

There are not many times when evangelical pulpits will devote sermons to Mary. This is typically due to reactions against Roman Catholicism, but it also comes from the simple fact that Mary does not actually occupy much space in the New Testament. However, there is a time where she does factor in a big way, and it is in the beginning of the gospels and the birth of Jesus. The opening chapters of Luke’s gospel tell us the most about her, and her famous song, The Magnificat, teaches us something about how she understood God to work. This morning we will look over Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth and her reaction to the fact that already her son-to-be was recognized as the Lord Himself. We will see how she is blessed by this and how she reflects that blessing back to God to magnify the Lord.

Mary and Elizabeth

The story of Mary and Elizabeth meeting together is primarily meant to show us that Jesus’ special identity was known already, even if in part. He isn’t even born yet. He is just recently conceived, alive in Mary’s womb, but already His spiritual significance can be detected. This teaches us something about prenatal life as well: both John and Jesus already have clear and irreducible identities, and John is portrayed as having a sort of awareness. Indeed, he is able to identify Jesus as he leaps in the womb.

At the same, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, thus showing us that Jesus has a divine presence with him. This Spirit makes sure that Elizabeth understands what is going on rightly, and it is the Spirit who enables Elizabeth to say, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary is blessed because of the fruit of her womb, and that fruit is the Lord.

What exactly Elizabeth meant by “the mother of my Lord” is not entirely clear. She may only have meant to say that the child had a noble character. More likely she was indicating that this child was indeed the messiah. She may have even been using “Lord” to indicate the special presence of the God of Israel. For readers today, we know that all three identifications are correct.

Mary’s Song

The Magnificat, the song of Mary, is actually a response to Elizabeth’s words. After hearing what Elizabeth has said about her and her child, Mary responds in verse:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. (Lk. 1:46-48)

This song has many parallels with the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, and indeed Mary is another member of the many woman who are selected by God to play a mighty role in the unfolding of His covenant. Even more than the barren Hannah being given a special child to be dedicated to God, Mary is a virgin whose child will be God Himself. Mary’s child will be the long-promised “seed of the woman” who will crush the serpent’s head. And this is why she is blessed, not because she has a special merit in herself but rather because God chose her as a vessel to bear the Christ.

The themes of Mary’s song are also familiar features to God’s covenant, and they are the kinds of things that get mentioned quite a bit in connection to Advent. As we have been learning these past few weeks, the messiah would bring in justice, raising what is low and leveling what is high. He would straighten what was crooked and bring all things to right. Mary’s song says the same things:

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty. (Lk. 1:52-52)

But beyond that general observation, we can also highlight three key features of the Magnificat. First, Mary responses to the blessing she is given by magnifying God. She does not draw the attention to herself but instead uses the grace given to her to reflect God’s greatness. This is a lesson for us all still.

Secondly, Mary says that God reverses the strengths of this world. Those who are mighty are “pulled down.” Those who are lowly are exalted. Those who are hungry are filled with good things, while the rich are “sent away empty.” This is another way to describe salvation by grace. God does not save those who are already strong and powerful. In fact, He saves those who are week, those who know that they are in need.

And then thirdly, Mary states that this is all a fulfillment of God’s covenant:

He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever (Lk. 1:54-55)

As we said earlier, Mary is the fulfillment of that very first gospel promise in Genesis 3:15. The seed of the woman shall crush the head of the seed of the serpent. This promise continued through Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her” (Gen. 17:15-17).  We see it again through Joseph, through Samuel, and through David. Special children of the promise all pointing to that future child of promise, Jesus Christ. Mary is the last of these miraculous mothers, and Jesus is the final seed of the Woman.

The Meaning of the Magnificat For Today

And so what can say about the Magnificat today? It’s very interesting to see its connections to biblical history, and I do think our worship is enhanced when we connect the coming of Christ to the messiah of Israel, when we tie ourselves into that ancient story of redemption. But does it reach out further into our Christian lives?

The Magnificat shows us that God specially blesses the poor and lowly. Mary was not a particularly special woman prior to being chosen by God. We have no reason to think she was flawed in any particular way, but she was clearly humble and lacking in nobility. She describes herself as holding a “lowly estate.” And God worked in Her completely through His power. She conceived a son quite apart from any natural ways, and while her body certainly participated in the bearing of the child, this wasn’t actually some active choice where Mary “did her part.” Rather, she accepted the gift God gave her, and she continued in that acceptance. God loves to exalt the lowly, and He loves to do all the work along the way.

The Magnificat also reminds us to beware of worldly riches and power. At the same time our God is exalting the lowly, He is pulling down the mighty. He humbles the proud, and He does this by bringing them down. If you are rich, the gospels tell us that you will have a hard time entering the kingdom. You will have a hard time acknowledging your need. You will have a hard time being hungry. And so beware anything that makes you feel strong and self-sufficient. Be vigilant to keep a posture of spiritual dependency. That sounds strange, but you have to work to remind yourself that you need God. Do not become complacent in your routine, thinking that you have it figured out. Practice humility.

And in all of this, God leads the way. In the virgin birth, we see God humbling Himself. He who was “in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). God was born of a woman. He made Himself a helpless child, growing inside the womb of an earthly mother. The infinite creator of all things was nurtured, held, and nursed by a young Jewish woman in the 1st century. What amazing humility.

Conclusion

The great English poet John Donne has a masterful poem called La Corona, the crown of prayer and praise, and in it he has a section devoted to the virgin birth. He employs a series of paradoxes to illustrate the majesty of the divine humility. His words are still powerful today:

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb. 

This is Christmas. The God of the Universe made Himself a helpless baby so He could help helpless sinners like us. He humbled Himself in order to lift us up, and so we continue to magnify His name today. Let us pray.

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