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The Magnificat

The Magnificat—Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55—is both conservative and revolutionary, both personal and social in perspective.


Mary’s poetic statement of praise in Luke 1:46-55 is traditionally called the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin translation of this text. There is a long history of the use of the Magnificat in Christian liturgy and as a text in choral music.

The Magnificat is both conservative and revolutionary, both personal and social in perspective. It is conservative because it affirms the fulfillment of ancient promises to Israel but revolutionary because it proclaims the overturn of society. It is personal because it initially focuses on Mary, but it suggests that God’s choice of her—a person of low status—represents in miniature what God is doing for the poor and powerless in general.

The poetic structure of the Magnificat creates a dynamic combination of the four contrasting perspectives mentioned above. The Magnificat falls into two sections (Luke 1:47-50, Luke 1:51-55) that present first the personal and then a broad social perspective on what God is doing. Mary begins by celebrating what God has done for her personally (Luke 1:47-49). Luke 1:48 and Luke 1:49 begin with “for,” followed by the reason for Mary’s praise—a remarkable act of God in her favor. In the second section, Mary also celebrates God’s amazing action, now with especially vivid and dramatic language, and here the perspective broadens to God’s action in society. Both sections end with a reference to God’s mercy through the ages, and Luke 1:54-55 relates God’s mercy specifically to God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants.

The first section of the Magnificat celebrates the surprising choice of a girl of low status for the honor of bearing the Messiah. There is an immense gap in status between the “lowliness” of the girl and “the Mighty One” who has chosen her, enhancing the wonder of the event. The key concepts of lowly and mighty are developed in the second section, but a third party is introduced: humans who are “proud,” “powerful,” and “rich.” God’s strength appears in bringing down the human powers and lifting up the “lowly” and “hungry.” Both social status and economic status are in mind, and the powerful and rich are regarded as oppressors of the poor. The development of the Magnificat from section one to section two shows that God’s choice of a girl of low status to bear the Messiah is emblematic of what God is doing in society more broadly, where God is intervening to bring down oppressors and lift up the socially abased and poverty stricken.

The Magnificat is one of a series of angelic announcements and prophetic hymns in Luke’s infancy narrative. Together these texts provide a theological context for understanding the whole of Luke-Acts. In particular, they link this long narrative to the Hebrew Scripture’s hopes for redemption of God’s people. God’s salvation will be offered to the Gentiles later in Luke’s story, but this salvation must also embrace the Jews in order to fulfill what Mary is proclaiming.

  • Robert C. Tannehill

    Robert C. Tannehill is retired from his position as professor of New Testament at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He is the author of “The Magnificat as Poem,” published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, and The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, vol. 1 (Fortress Press, 1986) and Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, 1996).