Fathom Mag
De Profundis

“My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”

Published on:
December 14, 2022
Read time:
17 min.
Share this article:

While it is a wonderful thing to consider Mary’s song all year round, and many Christian traditions do include it as part of their daily prayers, this is an especially good time of year to reflect on the Magnificat. In fact, for the many Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, Mary’s song is one of the texts read for the third week of Advent. This third week is the week of joy, a pause in the sobriety of reflection and repentance to prepare for the coming of Christ, that offers a moment to celebrate what God has done and is doing. Mary’s song gives voice to that sense of praise that reverberates through the waiting. And the praise itself is grounded in the victory of God. A close analysis of the song discloses afresh the power dynamics of God’s kingdom and raises implications for the voices of women in ecclesial spaces.  

Biblical Scholarship Available to All.

The Evangelical Theological Society is a professional academic society of biblical and theological scholars, pastors, and students. This paper—slightly edited for publication—was presented at the 2021 ETS Annual Meeting by Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler.

First, it is vital to know where Luke situates his song in his gospel narrative. Readers first meet Mary in Luke’s gospel in the 26th verse of the first chapter. At that point, Luke has already cast himself as a historian, named his aims of thoroughness and orderliness (Luke 1:1–4), and after getting the story started, recounted the angelic encounter with the elderly and barren Zechariah (1:5–25). In verse 26, the focus changes from Zechariah who is entwined with the grand system of worship in the grand place of the temple within the grand setting of the temple to a particular village, a particular family, and a particular woman. Whereas Zechariah encountered God’s messenger in the temple, in God’s space, in this vignette God sends the angelic messenger to Mary’s space. Gabriel shares with her the most amazing news in all of creation and Mary meets his information with her inquisitiveness. In fact, her first statement in the gospel is a question (Luke 1:34) and it invites a dialogue between herself and the angel. That dialogue allows Gabriel to give more information about this divine invitation. This will be a miraculous birth unlike any other before or after (Luke 1:35). From question to response, Mary’s only other statement in the annunciation scene is truly one of the most important in all of Scripture: Let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1:38). She agrees to the incarnation of God. 

As part of the conversation Gabriel had shared with her the good news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:36), so it makes sense that Mary chooses to visit her right away. What better person to process such news than a fellow woman who is also experiencing a less miraculous but still divinely-ordained pregnancy? When she arrives, however, Mary does not even have a chance to share her news. Elizabeth knows it immediately in the depth of her being. Simply by the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth intuits that Mary is pregnant, and she is pregnant with the Lord (Luke 1:42). There is no other explanation save that God has revealed this information to Elizabeth herself. She goes on to pronounce a blessing on Mary, herself, and by extension all women and men who believe what the Lord speaks. “And blessed is she who believed (ἡ πιστεύσασα [e̔ pisteésasa]) that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45). While Elizabeth’s statement is directly applicable to Mary, it can also apply to herself, and by extension, serves as a model for all faithful Christians. This is an interesting instance in which a feminine participle (ἡ πιστεύσασα), rather than a masculine one, can include all people. Right after this assertion from Elizabeth, Mary speaks for the third time. Well, likely it is Mary. There is a textual variant here in which a few minuscules and some manuscripts of Irenaeus and Origen and Nicetas of Remesiana attribute the song to Elizabeth.[1] The external data is so minimal and the internal sense makes a change in speaker from Elizabeth to Mary most likely with the introductory phrase, kai eipen. Consequently, even in the face of this variant, it is a solid bet that Mary sings this song. 

What richness it is to consider what she sings.

The Riches of Mary’s Song

The first word of her song in Greek is μεγαλύνει, in Latin, Magnificat, which has given the song its ecclesial name. It is her soul, as subject, which is doing this work of making great or magnifying and the object is the Lord. Her soul is not making God great, of course, for God already is, and yet it is her soul, now expressed through her song, that proclaims and lifts up the greatness of God for Elizabeth to consider. This is the basic work of evangelism and discipleship. Pulling back the veil to focus the attention of the hearer on the greatness of God, a greatness that was already present but a divine majesty about which the hearer was at least partially unaware. Another gloss given for this verb, mealunei, is also striking: “make large.” What if translators were to read the accusative ton kurion as an accusative of respect.[2] My soul makes large with respect to the Lord. In other words, my soul makes large, expands, for the Lord. Her body is about to expand for the body of the Lord, and with this line of the song, she could be saying that her soul will expand to make way for the greatness of the Lord. Through all Christian traditions, there are reflections on spirituality from a Marian perspective. We are all called, as Paul says to the Galatians (4:19), to have Christ formed in us. Like Mary, we become more full, more fully who God created us to be, when our souls make room for Christ. 

Although this theme is implicit in Gabriel’s message, it is Mary, however, who is the one to introduce the theme of salvation by using this word first.

Note that her words, like those spoken at the annunciation, are fully self-involved. Mary’s first words in the song/poem speak of her comprehensive response to God: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” While “soul” (ψυχῇ [psychē]) may connote interiority (Luke 12:19), for Luke the evangelist, more often the term embraces a comprehensive sense of the person (for example, Luke 6:9; 9:24; 12:19–22; 14:26; 17:33; Acts 2:41. This use appears often in Jesus’s call for discipleship). It is a term Luke uses to speak of one’s whole life. Then Mary adds the poetic parallel: “My spirit [πνεῦμα (pneuma)] rejoices in God my Savior” (1:47). πνεῦμα (pneuma), too, when it applies to humans, denotes the vivifying aspect of the person (Luke 1:80; 8:55). She is responding in kind to the initiating work of God. Her spirit responds to the work of God’s Spirit who overshadowed her (1:35). She rejoices in response to the angelic message which began with joy.[3] As the first instance of the very-important-for-Luke salvation (σῴζω [sōzō]) word group, Mary’s term does not replicate something that Gabriel said to her, although it does resonate with the idea that the coming Messiah will reign. Hence the logical implication is that he will therefore save Israel from their present unjust rulers (Luke 1:32–33). Although this theme is implicit in Gabriel’s message, it is Mary, however, who is the one to introduce the theme of salvation by using this word first. She is praising God because she will be included, personally, in the kingdom her Son will institute in line with the salvific ways of God. Mary with her mind, emotions, body—entire living self—rejoices to magnify the saving God. In fact, it is fitting that she rejoices at the reality of God being her savior because she is in this moment of her pregnancy the epicenter of salvation for the whole cosmos. 

That statement might create a sense of nervousness for some. In a recent exchange, a statement I made about Mary was interpreted to mean that I thought her co-redemptrix with God. Having studied those who argue for this position, I have concluded firmly against it. At the same time, the divine decision to involve her in the work of salvation, seems to me, indisputable. Any sense of her elevation due to her proximity to God’s salvation is appropriately circumscribed in the following lines of her song. After this first verse of the Magnificat, where Mary’s soul and spirit are doing the work, God becomes the primary subject of the actions. Mary is so full of joy not for what she has done but because of what God has done and is doing. 

On the other hand, Mary does not lose any sense of attention to herself. She proclaims that the divine actions include what God has done for her. Her first proclamation is that God has regarded—focused the divine attention—upon her. Even in proclaiming this amazing divine favor, she also names her position with respect to God. In that comparison, she is unquestionably lowly. 

Although the translation of “lowliness” could seem self-deprecatory, her marginalized position is a clear-eyed statement of her embodied reality. In her society and before God Mary occupies a humble position. Those in the Roman empire would view her, a Jew from a small village town, as lowly. Moreover, while there is certainly an esteem for women in the writings of Second Temple Judaism, some of those authors are also infected with a tendency toward misogyny, as are many Christians of the subsequent eras. It is likely that even her fellow oppressed Jews would have viewed her as less esteemed because she was female. To say she is “lowly” in society is simply to be honest. Spiritually as well, when compared with the God of the universe, Mary is a creation and therefore “below” God.   

It is from the platform of frank recognition such as Mary’s that the God of Israel tends to work wonders. Unlike Hannah whose song of praise provides a template for Mary’s own (1 Sam 2:1–10), Mary, does not plead for God to see her (1 Sam 1:11), she states that God already has (Luke 1:48). God’s vision is the reason for her praise. The God who sees has seen her in her lowliness, imposed by her society or embraced as a spiritual discipline or both. For her, being seen by God for who she truly is and how she really exists provides a reason to rejoice

Purchasing through the links in this article could earn Fathom a very small commission.

 In addition to lowliness, she claims that she is, in fact, God’s slave, God’s doulēs. When I was first doing intense exegesis and writing with Mary’s story while on sabbatical in 2018, the television series The Handmaid’s Tale was frequently under discussion. The Book of Common Prayer translation of this verse, “For He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden,” evoked a newly intense negative reaction. While I firmly reject some of the associations, especially of a sexual imposition upon her, I seek not to move away from the provocation of this term too quickly. I believe this kind of language now, as it did then, is meant to jolt, to demand that the reader pause and consider the implications. This is certainly not unheard of biblical language, as it appears in Hannah’s song as well (1 Sam 1:11, 16, 18 and in many Christian texts, including on the lips of Paul (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1) and Jesus (Matt 20:27) and Paul about Jesus (Phil 2:7), but it does capture the radical comprehensiveness of Mary’s commitment. Notice that is it Mary’s commitment. She has willingly chosen to enter into submission to God. It is from this place of surrender that God blesses and uses her. In fact, in the next phrase she makes the bold claim that from that point on, all generations will bless her (Luke 1:48). Not only for being the mother of the Lord, but also for proclaiming his good news. 

Allow me to substantiate the claim that the slave language was intentionally mentally provocative. The next time Luke uses the term female slave, a doulē, is in Acts 2 when Peter is quoting from Joel to explain what the crowd has witnessed, that they have seen male and female slaves receive God’s Spirit and prophesy (Acts 2:18/Joel 2:28).  There is no other way to explain his statement than to conclude that the crowd saw and heard women proclaiming the gospel in different tongues (a student recently noted that since there are fifteen dialects mentioned, there must have been more than the twelve male disciples articulating the good news), and included among them, the only named female slave in all of Luke’s writings, Mary herself. Another student suggested that Luke might have chosen this term, a doulēs, for Mary in Luke 1 not only as a nod to Hannah’s song, but also as a preview of what Peter would say in Acts. In other words, because he knew he would quote Peter’s citation of Joel, he articulated Mary’s self-description as a handmaid, a doulēs, of the Lord in both the annunciation scene and in the Magnificat (1:38, 48) to set the stage for her participation not only in Jesus’s birth but also in the continuation of his ministry. This seems to be the way of God, not the hoarding of divine work, but the sharing of it. Instead of God accomplishing all things by divine fiat, the way of God has been to invite humans, including Mary, to participate in that gospel work.

This divine character of giving or sharing is very apparent in the next line. She refers to God, holy is his name, as the one who is powerful. There is no question who the superior is in this equation, and at the same time, God the one with the power, makes her great (Luke 1:49). As she magnified the Lord, so now too the Lord magnifies her. There is no diminishment in God when God elevates another, but instead a deeper revelation of God’s inexhaustible majesty. She does not falsely imagine this greatness to be her own possession, but neither does she deny its reality. She shows the strength of confident humility by naming what God has done for her.

She goes on to proclaim that the same divine generosity shown to her, God will give to others. Any who appropriately fear God will receive God’s mercy in turn, for as long as the human story continues (Luke 1:50). Her words are looking beyond the present and, based on what God has done in the past, display an assured trust that God will be the same in the future.From anticipated future to cherished past, the next lines recount the deeds of God. The choral renditions from the Anglican tradition capture this shift with great drama. Many times her opening lines are set in soft, reflective music, sometimes sung by a single voice, but at this point, the tempo quickens, the organ swells and the full voices of the choir join to attest aurally to God’s power. The God who is powerful enacts that power by showing strength with his arm. First, this power is utilized as a destructive force, tearing down things that should not be. God scatters the proud (Luke 1:51). Not unlike the event at the Tower of Babel where the gathering of a group of pridefully self-dependent people resulted in an increase of pride (Gen 11:1–9), God breaks up the cabal of the proud ones. At the same time, God’s judgment is not only at the communal and external level, but God also breaks into the internal composition of each member of the proud group, getting to the root of the self-exaltation present in their hearts and minds. God removes them from their thrones, so that they can no longer oppress those under their reign but also so that they can no longer imagine themselves above moral law. God unseats them from their ability to exercise power over others; God lifts them out to bring them down. Mary calls the ones to whom God does this the powerful ones,, but this power is only an illusion if they are so easily dethroned by God, the one who is ultimately powerful (o, v. 49). Lest this sound like the move of a capricious God, the song assumes that God’s judgmental work is both good for the humblethe proud, for once the proud are deposed and their hearts judged, they are in exactly the right place where they can see their own need for God. 

Mary’s body will soon be full with the body of God, a picture that can serve as a metaphor for the spiritual hunger that is met sufficiently and abundantly in Christ.

From anticipated future to cherished past, the next lines recount the deeds of God. The choral renditions from the Anglican tradition capture this shift with great drama. Many times her opening lines are set in soft, reflective music, sometimes sung by a single voice, but at this point, the tempo quickens, the organ swells and the full voices of the choir join to attest aurally to God’s power. The God who is powerful enacts that power by showing strength with his arm. First, this power is utilized as a destructive force, tearing down things that should not be. God scatters the proud (Luke 1:51). Not unlike the event at the Tower of Babel where the gathering of a group of pridefully self-dependent people resulted in an increase of pride (Gen 11:1–9), God breaks up the cabal of the proud ones. At the same time, God’s judgment is not only at the communal and external level, but God also breaks into the internal composition of each member of the proud group, getting to the root of the self-exaltation present in their hearts and minds. God removes them from their thrones so that they can no longer oppress those under their reign, but also so that they can no longer imagine themselves above moral law. God unseats them from their ability to exercise power over others; God lifts them out to bring them down. Mary calls the ones to whom God does this the powerful ones, dunastas, but this power is only an illusion if they are so easily dethroned by God, the one who is ultimately powerful (o dunatos, v. 49). Lest this sound like the move of a capricious God, the song assumes that God’s judgmental work is both good for the humble and the proud, for once the proud are deposed and their hearts judged, they are in exactly the right place where they can see their own need for God. 

It is good to be in the place of the humble because it is those whom God lifts up. Mary sings that God exalts the humble, and she should know because she is a humble one to whom God has shown favor. The elevation of the lowly is the well-established pattern of God who lifted up the people of Israel, while they were slaves. As recounted by Paul in Acts 13, The God of this people, Israel, chose our ancestors and made the people great (upsoō) during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm, he led them out of it (Acts 13:17).  The lifting up of the lowly will also appear in the teaching of Jesus twice in Luke’s gospel. In Luke 14:11, he states, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He repeats this later in Luke 18:14. When God uplifts someone, it is not the replacement of one proud and oppressive person with another. When one is lifted up by God, it is still fitting to name that person as “the humble.” They know, like Mary, that it is nothing they have done to deserve exaltation, but their position has changed only because of God’s favor. 

Exaltation of the humble is not the only thing God does for those who are lowly. God also fills the hungry with good things. Mary’s body will soon be full with the body of God, a picture that can serve as a metaphor for the spiritual hunger that is met sufficiently and abundantly in Christ. Nevertheless, Luke’s spirituality is never at the cost of his interest in physicality, both are maintained. Within Luke’s economic, creational, and practical focus, Mary is also proclaiming that God ensures that hungry bellies are filled. Alternatively, those who imagine they have much, the rich, are sent away with that gnawing sense in their stomach reminding them of their own finitude and dependence. Yet again, to be dismissed with a need serves as an invitation to return and be filled. 

Thus far in the second section of the hymn, there has been an imbalance of focus on the elite. Three lines—the scattering of the proud, the dethroning of the powerful, and the sending of the rich away empty—attend to what God does to them, while only two focus on the humble being lifted up and being fed. I suggest the next line, concerning Israel, is also about the humble, hence bringing balance. God has taken hold of Israel, God’s child. Antilambanomai, to take hold of, is not to seize roughly, but to grab in order to help, as in when a lifeguard takes hold of a drowning person in order to save them. God grasps Israel as an act of remembering mercy. God is not forgetful, of course, so remembrance language when applied to God indicates God’s enacting of what God already willed. God hasn’t forgotten the covenant people but has decided that now—in the fullness of time—is the moment to act on that merciful covenant. 

It is true that Mary is proclaiming God’s aid for the whole people of Israel, but God brings that aid in a very particular way, namely by taking hold of Mary. Since doulh and pais share some semantic overlap of service, it is both grammatically and theologically fitting to see her as the particular descendent of Israel through whom God’s mercy will be manifest. She is the realization of the promise delivered long ago to Abraham that his seed would be blessed forever, and through that seed, blessing would come to all (Gen 12:3). She is the vehicle and substance of that seed. 

My first goal has been to share some of the richness of this song. It has been good both to draw from what I have learned over several years of teaching and writing, but also to see it afresh and see what treasures were present that I had not yet unearthed. My sense is that, as with all of scripture, we could return to Mary’s song many times over and discover new things about God. In fact, in a class I co-teach on Mary with art historian Matthew Milliner, we recite the Magnificat at the beginning of each class period. Eventually, we move from spoken word into chant and then it breaks into harmony. Just as the sound shifts each day, so too does the meaning. Whatever I bring into the classroom that day, Mary’s song meets me there. Lifting me up in God’s goodness when I am downtrodden, or appropriately humbling when I’ve acquiesced to pride, the song constantly reminds me of God’s eternal faithfulness and goodness. My hope is that I have provided some reflections to consider during this season of Advent and also in the future, every time one returns to this text. 

The Example in Mary’s Song

My second intent is to consider the implications of her song for the New Testament’s portrayal of women. I’ll do so by considering the genre of her song, her audience, and the life of her song in the church. 

The connections between Luke’s two-volume work show Mary to be an exemplary and trustworthy proclaimer. She has affirmed promises in the past and predicted the kingdom shape of the future.

First, the genre of Mary’s song is certainly an expression of praise. More precisely, the structure, cadence, and vocabulary suggest that it is more poetry than prose. For example, it mimics the form of the declarative psalms of praise in Israel’s scriptures. It is marked by parallelism, and phonetically many of the lines end in an “ou” sound.[4] Interpreters are right to classify it as a song. Nevertheless, one can press further to inquire what kind of song it is. 

On one hand, Mary’s words align faithfully with the assertions about God found in Israel’s scriptures. Her self-recognition of lowliness is the posture from which the God of Israel acts (Deut 26:7; 1 Sam 9:16; Neh 9:9; Ps 24:18 LXX; 30:8 LXX; 118:153 LXX; 135:23 LXX). Her statement that God takes notice of her aligns with Hagar’s proclamation that names God as the God who sees (Gen 16:13). Mary says boldly that God possesses a strong arm—an image drawn from the texts of Israel—that scatters those who do not fear (Gen 49:24; Wis 11:21.) Moving from the level of kingdoms to the level of the kitchen table, in affirming that God will fill those who are hungry with good things, her language resonates most closely with Ps 106:9 LXX, where, in recalling the story of the Exodus, the psalmist declares that God filled the hungry soul with good things. The truth of Mary’s proclamation is borne out by its multiple witnesses from the past; the law and the prophets join in chorus to support her statements. 

In the future, the actions of Jesus and the Spirit-infused church carry out the magnification of God about which she has hymned. When God her savior and Son is born (Luke 2:11), he confirms her proclamation with word and deed as he enacts the great reversal in his ministry. In his first public teaching, he says that he has come to bring good news to the poor and release the oppressed (4:18–19). After that, his words frequently echo Mary’s: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (6:21, 25). Moreover, as previously stated, he says several times, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11; 18:14). He often teaches on the judgment that comes to those who idolize their riches (8:14; 12:21; 16:19–31; 18:23–25). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus serves as a poignant example of the reversal of the hungry and the full (16:19–31). After instructing his simple band of followers on the necessity of humility, he promises them thrones (22:30). Moving on to his followers, the summary of what the church does in its early days resonates with her words. There was no lack, as her song had foretold (1:53; Acts 12:45). They received their food in gladness as she had rejoiced (ἠγαλλίασεν [ēgalliasen] Luke 1:47; Acts 2:46). People were being saved, just as it had been foretold to her (Luke 1:69, 71, 77; Acts 2:47). 

The connections between Luke’s two-volume work show Mary to be an exemplary and trustworthy proclaimer. She has affirmed promises in the past and predicted the kingdom shape of the future. As a fulcrum between past and future, she is a prime example of one who speaks truly about God. The Spirit has come over Mary, and now Mary has spoken truth about God, herself, and others. She is a Spirit-inspired trustworthy proclaimer who sings prophetically. 

Interpreters have noted that the aorist tense of her verbs proclaims not only what will happen, but what has already begun, hence they should be interpreted as prophetic.[5] Beverly Roberts Gaventa concludes, “Mary’s role in this scene warrants identifying her as a prophet.”[6] Clayton N. Croy and Alice E. Connor argue that Luke painted Mary as a prophet but didn’t call her such because of associations with pagan virgin prophetesses. Once this threat of association was not present, several patristic sources, including Eusebius, Theodoret, Basil of Caesarea, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria, were comfortable with naming her as a prophet.[7] Robert W. Jenson calls her the arch prophet in that she bears the person-word Jesus.[8] 

Mary’s words have reached and been internalized by an innumerable public audience. Indeed, it is absolutely the case that all generations have called her blessed and have done so by using her own words.

Even if it is granted that her speech is prophetic, one might observe that her speech is given in a private home to one other woman. This is one of the texts Richard Bauckham has deemed “gynocentric.”[9] That being the case, it has become, by being included in the liturgy of evening prayer services, one of the most said and sung texts of all time. Mary’s words have reached and been internalized by an innumerable public audience. Indeed, it is absolutely the case that all generations have called her blessed and have done so by using her own words.  

For any who are fearful of including women’s voices in ecclesial spaces, I offer this. Two thousand years ago, a newly pregnant young woman praised God for the work being done in and through her. Luke, the superb writer, records her words, with Hannah’s song as his muse. In God’s providence, those particular words, which Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit puts on Mary’s lips, have become the prayer of the church. She continues to speak prophetically and leads others to do the same and this has happened throughout the ages by God’s design. This is a fact to which I can only respond in praise: My soul doth magnify the Lord.

Some portions are taken with permission from Women and the Gender of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022).

Cover image by Grant Whitty.

[1] See Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. Nestle-Aland – Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th revised ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012, 180

[2] Daniel Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 91.

[3] Agalliaō (rejoice) and chairō (rejoice) are different words for rejoicing, but at times appear in resonance together (Matt 5:12; Luke 1:14; 1 Pet 4:13).

[4] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 99. 

[5] Green, Luke, 100. Or in the terminology Daniel B. Wallace uses, the proleptic (futuristic) aorist. God’s actions she proclaims are “as good as done” (Basics of New Testament Syntax, 242).

[6]  Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, Personalities of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 58.

[7] Clayton N. Croy and Alice E. Connor, “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26–56 and the Early Church,” JSNT 34 (2012): 254–76.

[8] Robert W. Jenson, “An Attempt to Think about Mary,” Di 31 (1992): 259-264, 261.

[9] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 47.

Next story