The Magnificat: Mary’s Canticle of Praise (Luke 1: 46 – 55)

The evangelist Luke describes how Mary sings her hymn of praise when she greets Elizabeth. Traditionally, Mary’s hymn is called the Magnificat, after the first word of the song in Latin: ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’. Literally this means: ‘Glorify the Lord, my soul’. Her soul magnifies the God of Israel in this song. In addition to being a song of praise, this song can also be seen as a protest song. Mary sings that God is reversing the existing order of power and wealth.

Mary with Elizabeth

When Mary was home in Nazareth she received an unexpected visit from the angel Gabriel. He gave her the message that she would conceive and bear a son. Her child would be called the son of the Most High. Mary became the mother of the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. Immediately after the angel left her, Mary hurried to the home of her older cousin Elizabeth. The angel had said that Elizabeth had become pregnant in her old age and that she too would give birth to a special son (Luke 1: 26-38). Mary knew that until then Elizabeth had been an elderly barren woman. Elizabeth was married to the priest Zacharias.

In those days Mary arose and went hastily into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and came to the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she cried with a loud voice, saying, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And to what do I owe this, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting rang in my ears, the child leaped for joy in my womb. (Luke 1:39-45)


Blessed are you among women

Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The fruit of your belly is also translated as ‘the fruit of your womb’. These words are literally the blessing that Moses had pronounced over the people of Israel. Moses said to all the people, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb” (Deuteronomy 28:4). The blessing that Elizabeth gives to Mary has been given a place in the Roman Catholic prayer ‘Hail Mary’:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with You, Blessed are You among women, and Blessed is Jesus, the fruit of Your womb. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners, Now and in the future hour of our death, Amen.


Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1

In the song of praise that Mary sings, she expresses her gratitude to God. She uses words from the Psalms in her song. For example, the first line echoes Psalm 103 verse 1: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ (see also Psalm 103:22 and 104:1). Mary expresses her joy over all the good that God has done for her. He has graced her so richly that from now on all generations, all generations, will call her happy.

And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because He has regarded the lowly estate of His handmaid. For behold, from henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy extends from generation to generation to those who fear Him. (Luke 1:46-50)


The critical tone of the hymn

In her song of praise, Mary magnifies the God of Israel for his faithfulness to his people. Mary speaks good words about the Lord of Israel. She praises his power and his strength. She firmly indicates that God will do justice to the poor people who are hungry.

He has done a mighty work by His arm. He has scattered those who are proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has deposed the mighty and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things, and sent away the rich empty-handed. (Luke 1:51-53)


Magnificat in 15th century book of hours / Source: The Limbourg brothers, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Mary praises the Lord for breaking the existing order of power and wealth. Maria’s voice expresses the longing that lived at the bottom of society. When she says that God has deposed the powerful, her audience thinks of Herod the Great, the cruel king of Israel, who even had his own relatives murdered. Herod who is so cruel that he ordered the murder of infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). When Mary sings that God gives good gifts to the hungry and that He has sent the rich away empty-handed, then, according to bystanders, this refers to Herod who levied heavy taxes on his subjects. Mary’s song contains criticism of those in power, especially the tyrant Herod who collaborated with the Roman rulers. What is special is that Mary proclaims the reversal as a fact and not as a possibility that will take place in the future.

The promise to Abraham

In her song of praise, Mary closely follows the Hebrew Scriptures. That is the faith she has received from an early age and it is reflected in her song. God’s history with the Hebrew people begins with the calling of Abraham. He is promised that through him the whole earth will be blessed.

And the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country, from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3)

In the Magnificat, Mary returns to the promise made to Abraham centuries earlier. Mary sees God’s faithfulness to his people in the coming of the savior. She praises God for being faithful to the promises He made to Abraham.

He has stood up for His servant Israel, remembering His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:54-55)


The Magnificat of Mary and the Canticle of Hannah

Mary’s Magnificat has many similarities with Hannah’s canticle. Hannah is the mother of the prophet Samuel. She was unable to have children for a long time. When she becomes a mother she sings a song of praise to the Lord (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Mary’s song of praise is very similar in certain respects to Hannah’s song. They both begin by identifying the joy for the Lord that is in their heart or soul. They also both speak emphatically about the reversal that the Lord does. God makes the poor rich and He humbles the powerful.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich, He humbles and exalts. He lifts up the lowly from the dust; He lifts up the poor out of the filth, to make them sit with nobles, to give them a seat of honor. (1 Samuel 2:7-8)


The Magnificat and the other hymns in the Gospel of Luke

Mary’s hymn has become known as the Magnificat, the first word of the song in Latin. Luke’s Gospel contains even more songs of praise that have to do with the coming of the Messiah. For example, Luke 1 contains Zechariah’s song of praise that he gave when his son John was born (Luke 1: 68-79). This song is called Benedictus in Latin. Another hymn is that of Simeon. He said this when he was allowed to hold little Jesus in the temple (Luke 2: 29-32). This song is called Nunc Dimitis in Latin, after the first two words of the song.

The Canticle of Mary in the Liturgy of the Church

In monastic tradition, Mary’s song of praise is sung all year round. The Magnificat is a permanent part of the vespers liturgy. It is sung during Lauds according to Benedict’s rule. Every day the words of the Magnificat are heard in the monastic communities. Mary’s Canticle of Praise is also included in the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Catholic Church. The song is also included in the liturgical book of the Anglican Church, the Book of Common Prayer . In the Reformed tradition, Mary’s hymn of praise is one of the ’12 Only Songs’ of 1773.

My soul exalts God’s glory;
Let my spirit joyfully call the LORD
my Savior, Who, in her low places, does not despise his handmaid, but makes her boast of his favor. (Hymn 2 verse 1 of the ’12 Only Hymns’)


The Magnificat in classical music

Mary’s hymn has inspired many composers to set this text to music. Several versions of the Magnificat are known by the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi (RV 610, 601a, 610b, 611). Johann Sebastian Bach composed at least two versions of the Magnificat (BWV 243 and 243a). The Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen (1937) has composed a setting in which the singers are accompanied by the organ. The list of composers who set the Magnificat to music is extensive. An internet search yields more than 230 different names of composers who were inspired by Maria’s words.

read more

  • The Annunciation: the Angel Gabriel Visits Mary (Luke 1)
  • King Herod and the Herod Dynasty in the Bible
  • The star of Bethlehem and the wise men or magicians from the East

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