I absolutely love poetry – when I hear it read. I remember attending a Cursillo weekend event in the mid-1980s where one of the spiritual directors read poems from his favorite author. The words leapt off the page and drew me in, so much so that I went out and bought the book for myself. To my disappointment, as I read from the book, the poems did nothing for me. I think we engineering-types struggle to read poetic literature. I know I do. To my dismay, the richness of so much poetry just never seems to leave the pages.
I’ve heard many people say they struggle reading Hebrew poetry, like the Psalms, as did I for about the first 45 years of my life. Then something changed. I took a seminary course in Pslams through the Reformed Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s. I remember asking the professor which English translation of the Bible gives us the best sense of the metre and intent of these great Hebrew poems and songs. He suggested reading from the New American Standard Bible. Thus began a new appreciation of Hebrew poetry.
Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is certainly in the genre of Hebrew poetry. It reads like many of the Psalms, laced with thanksgiving and admiration of God along with declarations of his redemptive and loyal characteristics. We should keep in mind that Mary would have been quite familiar with Hebrew poetry, especially the Psalms. She might likely have sung some of the Psalms during her week-long journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.
It was at Elizabeth’s home that Mary mouthed the Magnificat. Magnificat is the title attributed to her poem/song of praise which was a response to Elizabeth’s reception and words of blessing of Mary and her unborn baby, Jesus. The term Magnificat comes from the opening line of the poem in the Latin Vulgate Bible – Magnificat anima mea Dominum, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Though Mary’s poem appears to have been spontaneous, one could/should assume the contents could have resulted from things she would have been pondering since the visit from the angel, Gabriel, and most likely during her long trip to visit Elizabeth. I think of a couple different times in the Gospels that talk about Mary’s treasuring and pondering of events unfolding in her life: Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19, after the visit from the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth) and his [Jesus’] mother treasured up all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51, after the young lad went missing and was found discussing theology with the teachers in the Temple).
And certainly a visit from an angel declaring that she would birth the Messiah would be cause for much pondering!
If you recall, when Mary reached Elizabeth’s home and greeted her, Elizabeth’s baby John leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45). Elizabeth commended Mary for her faith and confirmed the angel Gabriel’s proclamation that she would indeed carry the Messiah in her womb. No wonder Mary broke into song (though scripture doesn’t indicate that she sang) and said…
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy* is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (ESV)
Read the Magnificat again and you will see the gospel, the good news that accompanies the arrival of a king. This King will be different than all other kings of the earth. Most kings, upon arrival, exalt those with wealth, position, and power. Most kings, upon arrival, throw celebrations and feasts for those of wealth, position, and power – celebrations and feasts catered by servants of humble estate. This King arrived through a servant of humble estate. This King would reverse the order, exalting the humble and humbling the exalted.
No wonder the late pastor and author, Eugene Peterson, referred to this good news as the great reversal. No wonder Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
* Mercy is that rich Hebrew word, hesed, that I have previously discussed.