Fresco of Ox symbol of St. Luke

Studying Luke 1 46-55

This week, we’re reading and studying what is probably the most famous Advent text in our canon: “the Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise and triumph, Luke 1:46-55. Super-familiar texts pose their own challenges for us as readers! The first one being that we forget to read the text, because we think we already know it. Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on my reading this time:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are finishing up our four weeks of readings in Luke’s gospel. This text will remind us once again of Luke’s special emphasis on the theme of “reversals” and on justice for the poor. And also Luke’s note-worthy inclusion of women characters.

Our verses come in the narrative context of Luke’s long first chapter. We’ve already read the story of Gabriel’s annunciation to Zechariah of the impending birth of John the Baptist, and Elizabeth is with child. We’ve also witnessed Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary – so we know the identity of her child, and she’s given her informed consent to her world-historical role in this drama (Luke 1:38), to put it in contemporary terms. And then she has gone to visit her “relative” Elizabeth – unspecified degree of kinship relation – in the Judean hills.

[Here’s a handy old map,

map of Palestine in the 1st century CE showing political divisions
Palestine in the Time of Jesus, in Charles Foster Kent, Biblical Geography and History, 1926, online at Project Gutenberg

and here are some contemporary satellite maps of the lower Galilee and the hill country of Judah! Note that Mary will have had to travel south, from her home in Nazareth, to get to the hill country of Judah.]

Elizabeth, famously, recognizes Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” and donates the words of a prayer that will be repeated countless times in the coming millennia. And then, Mary speaks, in the words of our text.

She stays with Elizabeth about three months and goes back home. John the Baptist is born. Then, Mary and Joseph have to make that long trip south AGAIN to get to Bethlehem in time to pay taxes and for Jesus to be born there. Hard to imagine that was a pleasant, stress-free trip. And then everything else in the gospel happens.

So Mary’s speech here, from a literary perspective, articulates and introduces the major themes of the gospel. Rejoicing in the Messiah. God’s greatness. Reversal of injustice, the making of justice and blessedness for the humble. God’s faithfulness to God’s people. The vindication of the faithful, “those who fear God.” The fulfillment of God’s purposes.

Commentators constantly remind us to note the similarity of this text to Hannah’s speech in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, which seems clearly to be Luke’s, or perhaps Mary’s, literary source. Hannah has been waiting for a child for a long time when she makes that speech. Mary, we presume, hasn’t – but has, we also presume, been waiting along with everyone else for the Messiah. And for justice, the kind that rights longstanding wrongs by upsetting some people’s comfortable apple carts.

If we’re of a certain age, we have probably been taught to think of Mary as a model of acquiescent, self-effacing humility – the Mary of Luke 1:38. More recently, the trend has been to pay attention to her radicalism and activism, as expressed in this particular text – the Mary of Luke 1:52. Both texts are canonical, though. We might want to remind ourselves, yet again, that how we read these characters often tells us more about ourselves than it tells us about the people we’re projecting onto.

This text is in the lectionary A LOT, so anyone who goes to church during Advent, instead of just at Christmas, has probably heard it more than once. Even Protestants.

CLOSER READING: Verses 46-47 emphasize inwardness: Mary’s soul does the magnifying – the making great of God – and Mary’s spirit does the exulting or leaping for joy. There may be an interesting contrast here with the “thoughts of their hearts” – a different kind of inwardness – in which the proud are scattered by God.

The magnifying – making great that Mary’s soul does in v46 is echoed by the great things God does for Mary in v49.

Similarly, the humbling or “lowly state” of God’s servant in v48 is echoed by the exaltation or lifting up of the humble in v52.

There are recurrent references to “generations” – maybe highlighting continuity of tradition, or genealogy, or procreation, all of which might be on the mind of someone newly pregnant. The theme starts in v48, where all generations will call Mary “happy” or “blessed,” surfaces again in v50, where God’s mercy is for generations and generations of those who fear God, and then concludes the speech in v55, with the reference to all the fathers or “ancestors,” including the founder of the lineage, Abraham and his seed or “descendants” forever.

If we look at the image of God in this speech, we notice God is Lord (v46), Savior (v47), the mighty one (v49), whose name is holy (v49), and who is merciful (v50). God does all the heavy lifting in the speech, looking, making or doing (twice), scattering, bringing down the mighty and exalting or lifting up the lowly, filling and sending away, helping, remembering (mercy) and speaking (in this context, promising). So God is powerful – ultimately, in charge, the “real” ruler – and incredibly active.

When if comes to God’s activity specifically, we might wonder whether “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (v51) draws at least a bit of its meaning from Genesis 11 and the builders of the Tower of Babel. In our habitual reading of that text, those tower-builders are proud. They are certainly “scattered” over the face of the earth in the end.

When it comes to filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty (v53), which might sound unkind to some of us, I am reminded of something I wrote a long time ago:

Maybe it is a good thing to be sent away empty – for the rich themselves.  Maybe it is a bad thing always to be full of whatever it is one is full of when one is rich, or even too rich.  Maybe sending the rich away empty means sending the arrogant away emptied of pride, or the greedy away emptied of acquisitiveness and materialism, or the pushy away emptied of selfishness.  That would be the kind of transformation that leaves everyone better off.

That would be nice.  To say nothing of being just.

Heather Thiessen, “On Sending the Rich Away Empty,” Wimminwise 11.27.2007
“The Visitation” – Maurice Denis – 1894 – via Wikiart

Images: “Feuchtwangen Pfarrkirche – Vorhalle Fresko Evangelist Lukas” Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Palestine in the Time of Jesus, in Charles Foster Kent, Biblical Geography and History, 1926, online at Project Gutenberg; The Visitation by Maurice Denis, 1894, a work now in the public domain, original held at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia

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