The angel Gabriel, who visited Zechariah, now comes to Mary with remarkable news of another impending birth. In contrast to Zechariah, an elderly, male priest, Mary is female and probably young and poor. Yet Gabriel declares she is favored by God, a God who graciously lifts up the lowly and overturns social conventions.
Although both Zechariah and Mary wonder how such a birth can be possible, only Mary responds with trust and obedience. She is a model of discipleship in the Gospel of Luke. The parallels and distinctions in these two stories communicate that both John and Jesus are unique agents of God’s saving purpose. But of the two, Jesus has much greater significance and stature. John will prepare the way for the Lord by preaching repentance. Jesus comes from the royal line of David and will reign over his people forever, fulfilling God’s promise to David of an eternal dynasty. He will be called Son of God, recalling God’s words to David in 2 Samuel 7:14; and he will be holy, conceived by the Holy Spirit. He is the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.
Before leaving, the angel gives Mary a sign that indeed nothing is impossible with God: her aged relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. Mary rushes off to visit Elizabeth, confirming the truth of the angel’s news. When the baby in Elizabeth’s womb stirs with joy, Elizabeth praises God and blesses Mary.
Mary responds with her own hymn of praise, known as the Magnificat, after the first word in the Latin translation of the text. Her song has echoes of Hannah’s song at Samuel’s birth, with its emphasis on divine reversals and compassion for the needy (1 Samuel 2:1–10). Mary’s song is thoroughly theological, in that it focuses almost entirely on who God is and how God acts. Mary’s song also anticipates the ministry of Jesus, who will be God’s agent for salvation on earth.
The hymn divides roughly into two halves. The first half is a personal thanksgiving for God’s gracious initiative on behalf of a particular, humble woman. In the second half, the scope of God’s action expands to include the poor and oppressed in general. The song celebrates God’s actions in the past but also anticipates what God will do for the poor and needy in the future through the Savior who is soon to be born.
The Magnificat characterizes the God of Mary and Jesus as powerful, merciful, and faithful. It also introduces a theme that is prominent in the rest of the book of Luke—namely, that God overturns human expectations and unjust power structures and delivers the oppressed. Thus, the hymn is both revolutionary in addressing the reversals God will provide and conservative in its insistence that God remains faithful to God’s age-old promises to Israel.
Who offers you unconditional welcome and embrace?
Who celebrates with you when you have good news to share?
Spend a few moments thinking about and giving thanks for the people who have supported you on your journey.
God, may I be challenged by Mary’s costly response to your call, inspired by Elizabeth’s joyful recognition of your presence, and compelled toward justice by Mary’s song. Amen.
This Bible study comes from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia.