Commentary on Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
In Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) we meet two women (well, actually three) who, moved by the Spirit, raise their voices in praise of God.
First is Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, wife of Zechariah (a temple priest in Jerusalem), and mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was, like her foremothers Sarah (from the Genesis cycle) and Hannah (from 1 Samuel), unable to have children; until the unexpected birth of John. Elizabeth is not just important because of her family relationships, however. When she greets her pregnant cousin Mary she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and “exclaimed with a loud cry … ” This phrase in Greek means to shout as though one is using a mega-phone, literally a “big” or “mega” voice. This is how Elizabeth speaks a prophetic word to Mary, and so to us — in her outdoor voice.
Second is Mary (we actually meet her first, but her speech comes second): cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus. Like Elizabeth, Mary is important for what she has to say, and not just because of whose mother she is. Mary’s song of praise is familiar enough that we need to go in depth here. What is striking, however, is how similar Mary’s spiritual situation and words are to those of her cousin Elizabeth.
The well-known opening words of the Magnificat are translated in the NRSV as “My soul magnifies the Lord … ” There is a similarity in the Greek with Elizabeth’s greeting above. Mary’s soul will “make mega” the Lord, which is a part of Mary’s spirit rejoicing in God. Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, gets out her megaphone to praise God.
The third woman we meet is, admittedly, not right out in the open, but hidden in, with, and under Mary’s song: Hannah. Hannah is the wife of Elkanah, and the mother of the prophet Samuel. But, again, Hannah is more than simply someone’s mother. She is a prophet in her own right, and sings the promise that her child is not only for her, but for all Israel, and for the cause of the Lord. A comparison of Hannah’s Song with the Magnificat shows the inter-connectedness of the two songs, and
Comparing 1 Samuel 2 and Luke 1:46-55:
Hannah’s Song, 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
2“There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
3Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
4The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
5Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
6The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
8He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.
9“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.
10The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now
on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Both Hannah and Mary exclaim their joy in their God. Both Hannah and Mary take heart in the promise (here sung as a declaration of that promise) that the Lord considers, cares for, and acts on behalf of the lowly — despite what one might expect (and contrary to how we human beings behave ourselves) it is not for kings or the mighty and powerful that the Lord has regard, rather it is for all the rest that God does great things.
Both Hannah and Mary identify what God is doing as being not just for them, but also through them for the whole people.
Both Hannah and Mary sing a song that can be, should be, our song in this Advent season. As we have prepared for the coming of the Christ Child, now we too can sing in thanksgiving, in celebration, in remembrance, and in proclamation of the promise made to our ancestors. Like Hannah, and Mary, and Elizabeth too, this is the time for us to indulge in unadulterated, celebratory joy in the promises that come to us in Jesus. Let us raise our voices in a great cry, magnifying our God.