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Commentary: Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

This song of Mary1 occurs on the occasion of her visit to her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who greets her as "the mother of my Lord (Lk 1:43). It is set within the Infancy Narratives of Luke which, while sharing themes with the rest of the Gospel, are different in form, content and theology. They represent the hope of the people for a mighty Liberator who may or may not use violent means to secure justice. The hymns incorporated in the Infancy Narratives have strong resemblance to the war hymns from the Dead Sea Scrolls2 and the canticles from the Maccabean literature.3
The hymn appears to have the introduction in vv. 46b-47 and then either comprise three strophes (vv. 48-50, 51-53, 54-55) or two strophes (48-50, 51-53) with a conclusion in vv. 54-55.
Meaning and Purpose
In My Enemy is My Guest I have pointed out the revolutionary atmosphere in the Lukan Infancy Narratives. Gabriel, the warrior of God, appears first to Zechariah, the father of the Baptist, and then to Mary; the archangel predicts that John the Baptist will have the fiery, aggressive character of the zealot prophet, Elijah, (Lk 1:17); the shepherds see a heavenly battalion singing a paean of victory not unlike the warrior angels who descended in the sight of the Maccabees (cf 2 Macc 3 :24-25; 3:30; 5:1-4; 10:29-32 and 11:28) and Maccabean names given to many characters in the Infancy Narratives, John (for Jonathan) Joshua (Jesus) and Simeon (Simon) for the chief personages.4
Prior to our pericope Elizabeth salutes Mary with words similar to those addressed to Jael who killed Sisera: "Blessed among women be Jael...She hammered Sisera, crushed his head" (Judges 5: 24-27) and Judith who killed Holofernes: "Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God...who guided your blow at the head of the chief of our enemies..." (Jth 13:18-20) .
In a similar spirit the Magnificat (the Song of Mary) is not a pious, peacable canticle but more like a revolutionary chant. The song shows affinity to literature from the Second Temple period especially 1-4 Maccabees; Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra and the Qumran hymns, especially the War Scroll. The Magnificat has been a source of inspiration to the underprivileged in our times and some communities have used it in a revolutionary spirit seeking justice for the oppressed.
Hebrew Scripture Background
The Magnificat is a mosaic of Old Testament allusions. Most exegetes have noted the close affinity between the Magnificat and 1 Sam 2:1-10, the Song of Hannah, when she offered Samuel to serve God in the sanctuary. Again this is warlike in tone and predicts reversal of fortunes as the Magnificat does, the mighty will be destroyed, the well-fed hire themselves out for bread, and the barren woman gives birth to seven sons. But further references to the Old Testament are found, for example, in vv. 47-48 which are close to Habukkuk 3:18:
Yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God.
These words occur after one of the most dramatic descriptions of Yahweh as the Divine Warrior riding in his chariot with his weapons, bow, arrows and spear and trampling the nations in his fury. We may compare, too, Ps 35:9 where God takes up his shield, buckler and lance and scatters the enemy like chaff before the wind. In v. 49 Mary addresses God as "Mighty," an attribution found in the Old Testament when God is described as mighty in battle.
In vv. 51-55 the hymn changes from a recital of God's good deeds to Mary to more general application. Notice the reference to the "arm" of the Lord which denotes valour in battle. From v. 52 we find the reversal of fortunes motif which is characteristic of the consequence of God's victory and is celebrated especially among the anawim. Jones sees in this verse the "classical vocabulary of the Day of the Lord." V. 53 addresses social situations. Vv. 54-55 focus especially upon Israel whom Luke shows to be under the aegis of the Romans and their puppet kings (Lk 3:1-2).
Jones, investigating the Jewish background of the Lukan canticles, speaks of God as the "divine warrior-champion of Israel." The phrases "He who has done great things" is a phrase taken from the holy war. God's prowess in battle seems to have been sung at covenant renewal ceremonies. The Magnificat ends with a reference to the covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Jones sees Mary's conception of Jesus as the "supreme turning point in history."
So all in all the hymn appears to expect a Coming One who will be from the house of David and will be endowed with military might. In the light of this we might surmise that when Jesus begins his peaceable ministry Mary and his other relatives were obliged to adapt their views and discard their belligerent expectations. What a praiseworthy adjustment! Yet in this hymn Mary does praise God for the new form of salvation which comes through the birth of her Son and in fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
The Song is a fitting complement to Micah 5:2-5 which predicts a woman giving birth; the Coming one standing like a shepherd, the revelation of God's majesty and greatness and the advent of deliverance and peace.
Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford 1. A few minor authorities attribute this hymn to Elizabeth. 2. D.R. Jones, "The Background and Character of the Lukan Psalms," JTS n.s. 19 (1968), pp. 19-50. 3. Paul Winter, "Magnificat and Benedictus-Maccabean Psalms?" Bulletin of John Rylands Library, 37 (1954), pp. 328-47. 4. See W.R. Farmer, "Judas, Simon and Ahtronges," NTS 4 (2, 1958), pp. 148-9.