46 And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 And my spirit rejoiced in God my saviour,
48 because he looked upon the humiliation of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will bless me
49 because the powerful one did great things for me; and holy is his name,
50 and his mercy is to generations and generations for those fearing him.
51 He worked might by his arm, he scattered the proud in the thought of their heart;
52 he brought down the mighty from thrones and lifted up the humble,
53 the hungry he filled with good things and the wealthy he sent away empty.
54 He supported his child Israel, to remember mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.
Mary’s extraordinary hymn of praise to God her saviour gives us an excellent opportunity to consider the question of the relation between the individual and the national in Luke’s Christmas narrative. The point I have been trying to make in these Christmas posts is that the true-meaning-of-Christmas cannot be articulated in terms of individual salvation—or, for that matter, in the simple incarnational formula of God becoming man at Christmas. If the miraculous conception of Jesus in Luke and Matthew is a sign of anything, it is—in keeping with the thrust of the stories generally—a sign of the coming judgment and kingdom. (Coincidentally, I see that Daniel Kirk is going through Matthew’s birth narratives in a similar vein.) The birth stories, in a multiplicity of ways, point to events that will transform the standing of the people of God amongst the nations: judgment, renewal, and the “defeat” of Israel’s enemies.
But the announcement regarding future historical events has a profound impact on the individuals to whom it is made, not least in the case of Mary. The personal dimension is reinforced by the fact that her “song” is inspired at least in part by Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, when her son Samuel is taken to the temple. The prayer has an intensely personal focus: the God who breaks the bows of the mighty, who gives strength to the feeble, who feeds the hungry, who raises up the poor and brings low the mighty, has taken away the pain of her barrenness and has become her salvation. Remarkably though, Hannah concludes with a much more sweeping statement:
The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he 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. (1 Sam. 2:10)
As in many of the Psalms, the individual’s story of suffering and salvation is set within the context of the wider sovereignty of God—in this case the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the judgment of the nations.
Mary’s Magnificat is no different. Her very personal joy at having been chosen to be a servant of the Lord is framed by the story of Israel. The God who scatters the proud, who overthrows kings and raises up the lowly, who has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty, has acted to help his child or “servant” Israel out of faithfulness to his promise to Abraham. God is Mary’s “saviour” because he is present in the midst of the national crisis to deliver his people. Nolland comments:
…the interpreter’s difficulty is to do justice both to the reference to Mary’s unique experience… and to its description in language that makes it typical of Israel’s experience of God’s saving intervention…. Mary’s experience is unique, but at the same time Mary is the first to experience in some manner that salvation which is for all Israel.1
Finally, I would suggest that just as Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth speaks of the salvation of Israel rather than of personal salvation in a universal sense, we need to recognize that Mary’s radical socio-economic rhetoric must be heard as a statement about justice in Israel and on behalf of Israel before it can be exploited for modern political purposes. The language draws on numerous Old Testament texts that speak of Israel’s God overturning established power structures in order to restore integrity to his people.
My view is that if we are to remain authentically biblical, we will need to learn how to prioritize the actual New Testament narrative over misleading readings that serve our modern religious interests—whether evangelicalism’s need to subsume everything into its myth of personal salvation, or more radical attempts to cast Mary as a “prophet of social justice”. This is not to say that personal salvation and social justice are not at some point legitimately entailed by the narrative. It’s just that I think we forsake a large part of the truthfulness of scripture—by which I mean not least the realism of scripture—if out of deference to popular and traditional expectations we persist in subverting the historical intention of the texts.
- 1. J. Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, Word Biblical Commentary, 69.