Luke 1:46-55 – Mary’s Song

It seems to me I have heard the song, “Mary Did you Know” more this year than usual. The song asks if Mary realized just what the baby Jesus would do later in his life.  There is nothing wrong with the song (other than being overplayed) and it certainly gets the Christology of the incarnation right, but it overlooks the fact that Mary did in fact know a few things about her son.  The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he would do.

The song emphasizes God, not Mary’s motherly feelings.  Nearly every line states that God has done something.  The song emphasizes the actions of God, beginning with Mary, but then to all Israel.  t is the “mighty one” who has done great things for the sake of his holy name (49); He is the holy one (49).  These are key terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God, especially when he acts to save his people, as in Isaiah.

What is important to notice is that all of these verbs are in the aorist tense – a complete action usually in the past.  God has acted already in the conception of Jesus to do all that this song describes.

For the ruling class, there is nothing here but judgment.  He has scattered the proud (51); He has brought down rulers (52); The rich he has sent away empty handed (53).  But for the humble, there is hope for mercy and a reversal of their present state: He has exalted the humble (52) and he has filled the hungry (53).  This sounds quite a bit like the Beatitudes in Luke — the Messiah will usher in a time of justice which reverses the injustice of the present.

The reason he has done all of this is because of the promise which he made to Abraham (55).   This is critically important because the promise made to Abraham included a nation and land, neither of which Israel has at the time Mary sang this song.  Most scholars (rightly) assume that this song is patterned after Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2.  There are many similarities (a childless woman is given a miraculous child who grows up to be dedicated to God).  But the context of Hannah’s song is important – she celebrates the coming king who will unite Israel and give her rest from her enemies.  In 1 Samuel, this is David, and Hannah’s song is a foretaste of the Davidic covenant.

In Luke, Mary’s song anticipates the coming of the son of David who will initiate the New Covenant, re-establishing the kingdom to Israel.  This coming New Covenant will be an age when the Spirit of God lives in God’s people, enabling them to keep the covenant.

How revolutionary is this song? It celebrates a coming king who will liberate Israel from her oppressors.  The song comes from the last years of Herod the Great, the representative of Rome.  I suspect that if Herod heard this song, he would hear the allusions to the Hebrew Prophets and understand that this child who is about to be born is a threat to the Herodian power and Roman domination.

If it is, a revolutionary song, why in the world is Mary singing it in response to her virginal conception?  It is possible that she was not sure that she was carrying the messiah until her encounter with Elizabeth; after the testimony of John she then knew for certain that the promises to Abraham and David were about to be fulfilled.