PART IV – Mary’s Magnificat: Interpretation and Comments

(Part IV of a potpourris of perspectives of our Blessed Mother Mary — prepared for discussion at a pre-concert lecture for Polyhumnia, St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, NYC) . . . more reflections to follow:

Mary’s Magnificat: Interpretation & Comments

 As I mentioned in Part I of these postings –  in reference to the literary form –   the Magnificat is a tightly knit psalm or canticle, comparable in style to the Psalms of David, the poetic book of Job and the poetry of the prophets, especially Isaiah.

The structuring of the Magnificat, like ancient Hebrew Poetry, uses the rhetorical devise of parallelism – that is a verse divided into two interacting sections.  Sometimes the second half of the verse repeats the basic meaning of the first – This is called synonymous parallelism; sometimes the second half contrasts the first which is called antithetical parallelism.

If you look at the opening lines of the Magnificat (in this case the first two lines make up the parallelism – later you’ll see that the parallelism is contained within one single verse):

My soul doth magnify the Lord;
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

That is a synonymous parallelism . . . with the second half reinforcing the first – expanding the meaning but going in the same direction.

Then if you look at verses 52 and 53 you’ll see good examples of antithetical parallelism He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
And exalted them of low degree

&

He hath filled the hungry with good things;
And the rich he hath sent empty away.

The meaning of the second half of each of those verses contrasts the meaning of the first half – turns the meaning upside down.

The over-arching sweep of the poem shows a movement of expansion – starting with Mary’s individual happiness, her joy reaches outward to focus on the Almighty . . . expanding to God’s people and the continuation of world history.  This kind of movement is characteristic of the Psalms as well, moving progressively from personal blessings, to national blessing and then to universal blessing.

Although there are multiple ways to look at strophic divisions and parings in the Magnificat, I find that considering two stanzas,  verses 46 – 50 as a grouping; and verses 51 – 55 as a second section is most resonant and helpful.  Notice that the end of each of these stanza – that would be verse 50 and verse 55 – both make reference to ongoing generation:
“From generation to generation” in verse  50; and”Abraham, and his seed forever” in the last verse.  These serve as endmarkers to the two stanzas.  Notice also the idea of compassionmercy – that comes at the end of each of these stanzas:  Mercy in verse 50 concluding the first stanza – and in verse 54 in the second.

Three parallel constructions occur in the first stanza: three lines begin with the word “For” (hoti in Greek):  verse 48, (first and second lines) and verse 49, first line.

For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
And holy is his name
.

These three parallel constructions are echoed by five parallel constructions in the second stanza with lines beginning “He hath” (verses 51, 52, 53 and 54).

He hath shown strength with his arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,  
     And exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
And the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath holpen his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy;

Mary’s three reasons or explanations from the first stanza have here expanded, adding to the sense of expansive movement from stanza 1 to stanza 2 – this movement might even be associated with the idea of Mary’s pregnancy itself.

These constructions are examples of form and movement in the poem which illustrate the tight-knit character – the highly unified sense of the poem.  (If you’re interested in looking into more of these elements, you might have a look the Thematic Articulation chart devised by Samuell Terrien.  This is taken from his book The Magnificat:  Musicians as Biblical Interpreters.  Terrien works with structural components based on Hebrew meanings.  As we mentioned the Magnificat is thoroughly Hebrew in essence, regardless of the language in which it was originally written – or the language in which we encounter it – we’re looking at the KJV English translation – you’ll be hearing Latin in the concert this evening.)

Key words – Shadings in the meanings of key words may be of interest. Beginning in verse 46 and 47:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

Soul – in the Hebrew sense of nephesh – does not correspond to the Greek psyche which has led to a dualistic way of thinking; in the Hebrew mind there is no distinction between soul and body – Mary’s whole being praises God.  For a pregnant woman the spirituality of the combined body and soul ties into motherhood.  She is saying her praise comes from deep inside her.

My soul doth magnify the Lord:

Magnify – magnify in the sense of glorify – another translation says My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. – Mary is magnifying the Lord by telling how great she thinks God is. This echoes Ps. 103 “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being praise his holy name.” – and it is personal nature, not an invitation to join in.

Magnify is used in the literal sense of “enlarge” to describe the large place Mary gave the Lord in her heart.  Combined with the psychological perspective this space, this emptiness, has been compared with the concept of Chora – an open, uncommitted space — space where change and transformation are free to arise.  This might encompass the idea of kenosis, the emptiness of a space which becomes receptive – or taking into our vision a bit more of the complete essence of God’s greatness.  This is the place where Incarnation can take place.

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

Spirit:  that faculty of being human that is attuned to infinity.  The Hebrew word is ruach it’s feminine — Holy Spirit is not mentioned but spirit suggests a connection to the Annunciation ”The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee”
and
my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

Savior:  This is the first time the word savior is spoken in the NT – Luke is the only synoptic Gospel that refers to Jesus as Savior.

Verse 48:   For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:

“Regarded” can mean simply “looked at” or “noticed.” But that’s not all it means. “Regard” also means to hold in great esteem, to value highly.  God regards Mary not despite her low estate but because of it.  God values the lowly, the poor, the destitute and – considering the cultural status of women in her day – yes even a woman – a handmaiden, a female servant.

For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

blessed in the sense of happy, fulfilled; Mary is the symbol of the telos – the end purpose of history – all generations – she was the first daughter of the church.  In Hebrew thinking, Happiness is purposeful – growing in the collective sense,  In the social sense it is contagious.

And why will all generations call Mary blessed?

For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
     And holy is his name.

. . . not because she has done great things for God, but because God has done great things for her.  At this point the focus turns from Mary to He that is mighty – the Almighty who is the subject in this verse and the rest of the Magnificat. First Mary focuses on God’s attribute of power — then she combines with the power, God’s holiness and mercy ––

Verse 50.
And his mercy is on them that fear him.
From generation to generation:

Mercy – the gracious, faithful love that God pledged to his people by means of a solemn covenant – faithful, consistent – throughout every generation.  Mary experiences what believers throughout time experience

on those who fear him – not terror or horror, but respect and reverence – recognizing God’s greatness – recognizing right human relationship with God.


Verses 51-54:

51.     He hath shown strength with his arm;
                 He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52.     He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
                 And exalted them of low degree.
53.     He hath filled the hungry with good things;
                 And the rich he hath sent empty away.
54.      He hath holpen his servant Israel,
                 In remembrance of his mercy;

These verses borrow heavily from salvation rhetoric of the Hebrew scripture – much of this language is figurative; things describing this world refer also to things that belong to the realm of the spirit.  The prophets often spoke in this figurative way:  Isaiah, for instance when we said

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
 come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”

Paul explains in Romans (14:17) that  “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

A note about the six verb tenses in verses 51-53:  the aorist tense can have three possible explanations:  1) past action 2) habitual action (gnomic), in this sense timeless or 3) future action, meaning “as good as done”, sure future action (prophetic).  This last sense of future, ongoing action is probably an appropriate understanding here.  Vision of this way of thinking is whole, as observed from the outside looking in – perhaps, closer akin to an enlightened vision — to God’s vision.

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts

This has also been translated he has scattered the proud in their conceit – it means mental disintegration.  The Hebrew sense of heart is intellectual consciousness the power of reasoning, not the emotional or instinctive center .  In psychological terms it refers to the fear of annihilation – death.
52.            He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
                        And exalted them of low degree.
53.            He hath filled the hungry with good things;
                        And the rich he hath sent empty away.

These verses prophesy – call forth social upheaval and reordering – as in the paradoxical reversal Jesus speaks of in many of his parables
“Those who are last will be first and first will be last. . .”

Verses 54 – 55:
54.            He hath holpen his servant Israel,
                        In remembrance of his mercy;
55.            As he spake to our fathers,
                        To Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

These verses speak to God’s fulfilling of the covenant with Abraham – It is a reminder that Israel is to be a light to the nations – morally and spiritually.

The Magnificat affirms the past – and affirms the future.  The Jewish faith and tradition are kept alive by memory – the collective memory of Israel is in the heart of each believer.

In the Magnificat, God changes the world by changing hearts and opening eyes–not through violent means. Change happens when we see the world and ourselves in new ways and living into this  new vision.


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