Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” – Luke 1:46-55 (CEB)
We remember that Mary went with haste to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth after hearing that she, too, would be expecting a child. This beautiful passage, referred to as the Magnificat because of the first word in the Latin translation, is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s joy. As much as we make of Mary’s humble – and courageous – response to Gabriel – I think it would be a stretch to believe she was singing the Magnificat on her way to visit Elizabeth. Mary lived in Nazareth and she was travelling to the Judean hill country near Jerusalem – about the distance between Milwaukee and Chicago. I doubt she was travelling alone. I don’t know what conversations were taking place, but I imagine that the trip to was full of apprehension and questioning.
Elizabeth confirms Gabriel’s message by both her words and her pregnancy as she greets Mary. In response, Mary sings her Magnificat. Typical of Luke, this passage puts the last, first; and the first, last. As we reflect this season on the Good News of great joy for all people, I wonder if Mary’s Magnifcat really is good news for all people.
We remember Jesus’ beatitudes in Luke: blessed are the poor, hungry, wretched, and rejected; woe to the rich, satisfied, happy, and praised. Mary’s Magnificat foreshadows this teaching. Just as those who heard Jesus’ words of woe and rejected him, so too, would they hear Mary’s words and do the same. It seems there is no place in God’s kingdom for the proud, powerful, and rich. Maybe those angels on Christmas don’t really know what they are talking about. Maybe those who have already had their good news and comfort aren’t really wanting this good news.
Today, we understand Good News as the Gospel. It is a Christian phrase loaded with Christian meaning. But that was not the case 2,000 years ago. In order to understand what is happening in these familiar texts, we need to consider how these words were heard in the first century.
Son of God
As we see in the healing of the Centurion’s servant, Caesar was not only emperor but also god in the Roman Empire. In the generation before Christ’s birth, Julius Caesar was named “’God Manifest’ and ‘Savior’ of all humankind.’” August Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son and emperor at the time of Christ’s birth was known as the
“son of the divine,”…[and] was said to be the son of Apollo by direct engendering…. In a resolution in Augustus’ honor passed by the provincial assembly in Asia Minor, the emperor is hailed as a “savior” (soœteœr) sent to humankind.
Apollo, as we may remember, was the son of Zeus. Coins of the time showed Augustus as “the incarnate Zeus and the worship-worthy son of god.” This should remind us of the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end…. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” – Luke 1:30-33, 35 (NRSV)
What we sing so sweetly and hear read so benignly at Christmas is a radical and outright challenge to power and Empire. Gabriel announces that Caesar is neither God nor the Son of God. Caesar’s empire is only of this world. Jesus is the true sovereign, and God’s kingdom is the only kingdom.
So what about good news? In the first century, “good news” was known as the good news of Caesar. The good news of Caesar was the peace of the Empire, what we may know as the pax romana; however, this wasn’t real peace. Caesar’s peace was a result of a heavy-handed military that was quartered throughout the Empire. The good news of Caesar was increased prosperity, entertainment, and a strong military. Augustus was known as
the virtuous benefactor of the human race and bringer of peace…. The “birthday of the god” [Augustus] signifies for the world the “beginning of his good news.” Luke declares in narrative form that God’s provision for the benefit of humanity arrives not in Augustus but in Jesus, the announcement of whose birth is truly euangelion (“good news”) and the sign of God’s favor. The divine gift of salus (“well-being”) becomes available not in the emperor but in Jesus, the Savior and Benefactor of the human race.”
In the first century, it is Caesar that would have been known throughout the Empire as the prince of peace. But just as we sing at Christmas, we proclaim that the prince of peace, referred to by Isaiah, is not Caesar but Jesus Christ. We sing not about a peace that is enforced by fear but a true peace that comes from the well-being of all people. Caesar’s good news was only enjoyed by about 7% of the people.
The Good News of great joy that Jesus brought was for all people.
These familiar passages from Luke are not sweet words about a baby; they are a judgment against an Empire. And for those who suffer at the hands of the Empire, they are indeed Good News. Interesting, I know, but so what?
Did we notice Mary’s words in the Magnificat are in the past tense? Mary is not a girl in a Disney movie who is singing about some day. Mary is announcing the revolution – and declaring that it has already been won. Mary knows she is already blessed because God is keeping a promise in sending Jesus. She praises God because God has already done great things, already raised up the lowly, already fed the hungry, already drenched Israel in mercy.
All of this is already done, even though the Word has not yet become flesh and made his home among us.
This is why all people can sing the Magnificat. While there is so much suffering in the world and so much that is uncertain, God has already done great things. I think this is what true blessing is: When we are so certain of God’s promises and who God is that we can speak about them in the past tense before we have seen them with our own eyes.
True blessing is knowing that these things were already accomplished at the moment when God first spoke them – and then choosing to live that way. And that, is magnificent.
Faithful and loving God, how amazing that your promises are already true from the moment you first ordain them to be. May we recognize that your Good News is the only gospel that is everlasting and true. Help us not to rely on the immediate and temporary of comforts of this world. And despite continued violence, sickness and death in this world, may we remember that you, the Prince of Peace, have already won against injustice and oppression. May we live as though your promises to us are already true – in this life, and in the one to come. Amen.
 Luke 6:20-26
 Luke 7:1-10
 Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Son of God,” 6:133, Jarl Fossum.
 Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Rome,” 5:831-832, John F. Hall
 Dictionary of New Testament Background, “Ruler Cult,” 1028-1029, D.A. DiSalva.
 Gloer, W. Hulitt, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 1, 39.
3 Thoughts to “Magnificent”
[…] up in chapter two when describing Jesus’ birth. But what about the many months until then? Mary returns home – and then what? She finds herself in a time in-between; in a time of […]
We enjoyed our children and grandchildren yesterday as they interpreted Christmas for us. And it began with my granddaughter (Gabriel) explaining Mary’s reaction to the angel’s message. So reading your comments today helps me more fully understand the message in the context of the first century.
I also have a wonderful memory of us reading the Christmas story while our kids acted it out. It’s always interesting to hear / see their interpretation. Merry Christmas to you!