This passage, sometimes called the Magnificat (in Latin, “my soul magnifies the Lord” is “magnificat anima mea dominum”), occupies an important place in Luke’s gospel.
The opening chapters of Luke’s gospel are the place where Luke connects the gospel story to the Old Testament. Matthew’s gospel makes this connection by means of the idea of fulfillment—Jesus did such and such as a fulfillment of certain Old Testament promises. Luke’s gospel does not make much use of the idea of fulfillment. Instead, this gospel uses the birth stories about Jesus to create a narrative connection between the Old Testament and Jesus’ ministry.
Within this narrative connection we find a cast of Jewish characters who model piety and faith: Mary, of course, but also Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, and, somewhat ambiguously, Zechariah. We also find the Holy Spirit filling people (Elizabeth in 1:41; Zechariah in 1:67; John in 1:15), bringing about Mary’s virginal conception (1:35), and revealing (to Simeon in 2:26).
Luke’s gospel is thus concerned to show that the New Testament, although new, is nonetheless a continuation of the Old Testament. There is, in other words, a continuity of Spirit-inspiration and piety as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
Luke 1:46-55 is a piece of this narrative about continuity. The passage has an Old Testament flavor. It is, in fact, a psalm of praise, quite similar to Old Testament psalms of praise:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1:46)
Psalms of praise typically extol God’s power for deliverance:
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm (Luke 1:49-51).
God, in other words, is identified as the deliverer; the act of praise is a response to the exercise of God’s power on behalf of God’s people.
How is this power demonstrated? This question leads us into one of the most important themes of the gospels—the belief and hope that the intervention of God’s power will reverse the inequity and injustice that characterizes this present age. In the fullness of God’s kingdom, the first will be last; the last will be first. The poor will be blessed; the rich will receive woes. In the words of the Magnificat:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53).
On side are the enemies of God and of God’s people: the proud, the powerful, and the rich. On the other side are the people of God: the lowly and the hungry. The arrival of God’s kingdom means good news for the lowly and the hungry, but bad news for the proud, powerful, and rich. These latter will find themselves cast out of the kingdom, subject to God’s rebuke
The concern of Luke’s gospel to connect new covenant with the old covenant means that Israel plays a central role in this gospel. Mary’s psalm thus makes specific reference to Israel and grounds the appearance of Jesus, the Messiah, to the promises made to Abraham:
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1:54-55).
This mention of Israel lifts this psalm above the concerns of Mary as an individual. The blessings of which this psalm speaks are given, not just to Mary, but to the people of God. Admittedly, the psalm does draw special attention to Mary and to her distinctive role in salvation history:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me (Luke 1:46-49)
But it is important to note that the great things that God has done for Mary stand in the context of God’s blessings on and promises to Israel.
So, what is the enduring message of Luke 1:46-55? For one thing, this passage affirms the Jewishness of Jesus. From its beginning, the Christian community has struggled to understand Jesus and his connection with Israel. If the connection is over-emphasized, then it becomes difficult to see how the new covenant can be truly new. With such overemphasis, Jesus is regarded simply as the Jewish messiah and the greatest prophet. But if his connection with Israel is insufficiently emphasized, then the new covenant is so radically new that it cuts Jesus off from his Jewish heritage. In this case Jesus becomes an a-historical figure.
The first chapters of Luke’s gospel are one way in which early Christianity affirmed the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus is not only human, he was a particular human being, one with a particular historical heritage. He did not appear from nowhere; on the contrary, he emerges from Israel’s history with God and cannot be understood apart from that history.
For another thing, this passage reinforces the gospel teaching that the first will be last and the last will be first. It reminds us that the kingdom of God and the message about that kingdom are not about purely spiritual realities. This passage and others like it tell us that the kingdom of God is a this-worldly reality, something that God is creating within history. It is not a heavenly reality, but one that affects the material and social well-being of people in this world.
It reminds us as well that wealth and power are morally and spiritually problematic. Although the Bible stops short of calling them evil, it does portray wealth and power as sufficiently dangerous as to require frequent warning. The Bible’s warning should serve as a permanent caution to the Christian community as it seeks to live out the gospel in the world. It reminds us that whatever wealth and power we possess must be subject to constant moral scrutiny to ensure that they are used for God’s purposes and not for our individual purposes.
Finally, Protestants need to listen carefully to this passage and the way in which it honors Mary. Hundreds of years of Protestant angst about the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary have made of her a spiritual void, of no importance in Protestant theology. This passage tells us that Mary received special favor and blessing from God, not because of any merit, but because she represented the lowliness and obedience that characterize the people of God. Perhaps this passage can restore to Protestants Mary’s importance as model of faithfulness.