My soul magnifies the Lord
Reflections on the Nativity Gospels, #11
Two humble women, both with child, meet in a town in the hills of Judea, and nothing less than the change of the ages is underway. The elder woman, who had long been barren, greets the younger, who has conceived as a virgin, when the power of the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ her. The children are linked, however, by more than their miraculous conception.
The elder Elizabeth bears a son John, who promises to be the final herald of the redemption for which Israel has longed for countless generations. Filled with the Spirit, John fulfills his destiny even while still in his mother’s womb, leaping with gladness in the present of the younger woman with child. John’s mother proclaims to her companion with a Spirit-filled cry
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb (Luke 1:46)
The blessed one is Mary, the bearer of Jesus, who is now confirmed in her faith ‘that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’ (Lk 1:45), namely, that ‘the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ (Luke 1:35).
When we want to know what happened, we look to history. When we want to know why it happened, we turn to theology. But when we want to express our gratitude for what is happening, we turn to poetry, to hymns, and to song.
Luke understands this full well, and so he places in his story of Christ’s birth four majestic songs, or canticles, most memorable of them being the Magnificant, Mary’s outpouring of praise at the occasion of her visit to Elizabeth. It still sung to this day at Orthodox matins, and is beloved by so many of the faithful. It is worth our close study.
To begin with, we must see this song as part of Israel’s long tradition of psalms and other hymns. These are found most notably in the book of Psalms, but in other places as well – a long and valued Old Testament tradition continued by Jewish Christians in the early church. The Magnificant itself is mirrored most closely by the canticle of Hannah found in I Samuel 2. Hannah, long barren, promised that, should she be blessed with a child, she would dedicae him to the Lord. She was so blessed, and her son, Samuel became one of the greatest prophets of Israel.
Let’s turn now to the words of the canticle itself.
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
How is it possible to ‘magnify’ the Lord? Is He not already beyond our comprehension in his majesty and power? As the articulate part of His creation, we can glorify him through praise. We will hear how Mary does so in our coming reflections.