What Insights Can We Gain from the English Version of the “Magnificat”?

Mary and Elizabeth meeting; the Magnificat
“The Visitation” by Philippe de Champaigne, public domain

This is another one of those posts where I may get completely carried away. I’ll try to rein myself in, however. And I do want to start out with some info about the composer, David N. Childs. Brian had mentioned that he’d self-published our piece, and it is indeed true that it isn’t listed with his publisher, Santa Barbara Music Publishers, nor do I see it on his own website. But the impression I had was that he was some struggling young guy, with this perhaps his first “real” composition. Such is absolutely not the case, my friends. He sounds like an extremely busy composer with lots of irons in the fire. I would encourage you to take a look at his professional website, River Avon Productions, just to get a taste of what he’s up to. Interesting little note: he’s married to a laryngologist. Isn’t that like, so cool? Somebody in one of his choirs is having vocal problems? No prob! He can call in his wife to diagnose the case.

On to the matter at hand, Childs’ magnificent rendering of the Magnificat. I think everyone reading this is at least vaguely aware that the words are Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement to her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. So the Ave Maria and our piece form a pair.

However, I had to correct my memory a bit when I went back to the Gospel of Luke to check the story. Mary doesn’t burst forth with this eloquence on the spot; all she says directly to the angel is, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” Her great proclamation comes a little later when she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman, past the normal age of childbearing, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth greets Mary with some eloquent words of her own and Mary replies. (This event is usually called “The Visitation,” as pictured in the illustration.)

Perhaps I should stop here and give a little background on what we know about Mary, which won’t take long as we don’t know much! We know she’s a virgin but engaged (betrothed) to a man named Joseph, a carpenter. He may or may not have been poor. When Jesus enters into public ministry the people in Nazareth say, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” Some have taken this comment to mean that Joseph was a nobody, but the people may just mean, “Hey, this guy is telling us that he’s the Messiah! How can this be? We’ve seen him grow up! We know who he is!” Interestingly, recent excavations in Nazareth have uncovered ruins of a house that has traditionally been known as the “house of Joseph,” and it’s not a poor hovel but a nice stone building. We also tend to think that Mary and Joseph were poor because they were turned away from the inn and had to take refuge in the stable, but, again, we ma be interpreting the story incorrectly. Perhaps the couple delayed their departure because of the impending birth, hoping that the baby would be born before they left, and there was literally no room anywhere for them but the stable. (The innkeeper gets a bad rap for not taking them in, but there’s no innkeeper actually mentioned in the biblical story.)

Well, I’ve gotten sidetracked a little by Joseph here. Back to Mary. She probably would have been very young, as Jewish girls were considered to be marriageable at the age of 12 years and a day. However, the betrothal period could last for approximately a year, and parental consent had to be given for the marriage until the participants were 21. So we just don’t know for sure how old she was. Certainly her words as recorded in Scripture are mature and show a great deal of biblical knowledge. So let’s take a look at some of those words.

First, the overall theme: Mary exalts God and compares His glory to her humble estate. The reason why this piece is called the “Magnificat” is because of her first words: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” This idea is repeated over and over: God is her Savior. He has “regarded” (taken account of) her lowliness. She is God’s “handmaiden” (servant). She magnifies God, and He reflects that glory onto her. God’s mercy is on those who fear Him. (“Fear” in the sense of reverence.) God has no patience with those who are proud and mighty: He scatters and puts them down. He exalts the lowly, filling the poor with good things and sending the rich away empty. In practical terms, does this mean that it’s a sin to be rich? I don’t think so. Mary’s words can be interpreted to mean the same thing as the words of Jesus in Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Or, in the words of The Message translation: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” Even a rich man can realize his dependence on God, thus becoming poor in spirit.

Does Mary claim any special power or position for herself? Only in the sense that she is fulfilling God’s purpose for her: “For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed,” because “He that is mighty hath magnified me.” Her focus always revolves around the greatness of God.

Mary’s song ends with the words “He remembering His mercy hath holpen [helped] his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever.” But Childs has chosen to add on the words of a doxology, a brief hymn of praise to God that is often used at the end of a Christian worship service. This one, often sung in Latin as the “Gloria Patri,” emphasizes the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May I be so presumptuous as to say that I think Mary would approve?

I’d like to think that Mary sang or said her own words to herself as she went through her life, which would have been a difficult one at best. Truly, as Simeon said to her at the Temple when she and Joseph brought the 8-day-old Jesus to be circumcised: “A sword shall pierce your soul.” (Read the whole passage here.) I’m sure she pondered Simeon’s words just as much as she pondered the things that happened on the night of Christ’s birth. She appears a few times in the Gospels, but our last glimpse of her in Scripture is at the foot of Jesus’ cross. I’ll close with this quote:

When Mary said “Yes,” she knew what it meant. She knew that she had been chosen for an ineffable privilege; she also knew, I suspect, that she was consenting to unsupportable sorrow. God did not foist that on her either; when Simeon told her of the sword that would pierce her soul, I doubt he was telling her anything she didn’t already know.

She knew.

(“What Did Mary Know, and When Did She Know It?”)