This article by K.W. Leslie is probably the best treatment of Mary’s prayer that I’ve seen, insomuch as it addresses several popular misconceptions. I encourage you to read it as his blog, More Christ, but also to send your friends and family to the article as it appeared.
The prophecy Mary gave to Elizabeth during her visit is called the Magnificat [män•YĒ•fē•kät] from the first word in its Latin translation, Magnificat anima mea Dominum…. It’s a Hebrew poem in that it repeats concepts. Some have wondered whether it’s a hymn which Mary composed on the spot. Or maybe she composed it beforehand, and came out with it now.
Those who don’t understand how prophecy and inspiration work, tend to think of the Magnificat as something the Holy Spirit said through Mary, rather than something Mary said, empowered by the Spirit. They see her as some illiterate, uneducated peasant girl. In reality, the Spirit takes our innate abilities—the ones we have all the time, not just when we’re inspired—and points them at God. The Magnificat isn’t just a one-time freak of nature. Turns out Mary was a poet. Perhaps even a musician. Maybe untrained, with strong natural talents God put in her long before she said this. But maybe someone had trained her; we don’t know. All we have is her poem.
“My soul knows how great the Lord is.
My spirit rejoices over the God who saves me,
because he looked at the lowness of his slave.
Look: From now on, every woman will call me awesome,
because the Almighty did a great thing to me.
His name is holy.
His mercy, to those who fear him, lasts for generations.
His arm performed powerful things.
He scattered those who were overconfident in their thinking.
He pulled dynasties from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
He filled the hungry with good things.
He sent the wealthy away empty.
He supported his child Israel,
remembering mercy as he spoke to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his perpetual descendants.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months, and returned to her house.
—Luke 1.46-56 KWL
Most of the Magnificat comes from Old Testament concepts. Sometimes direct and indirect quotes. Those who think Mary was an ignorant peasant clearly don’t understand her culture: Mary went to synagogue.
In the first century, synagogue wasn’t simply a Jewish church, like it often is today. Synagogue was school. The Pharisees had invented the synagogue system to teach the Law, the bible, to the general public. They wanted to encourage men to become bible scholars, grammatís, “scribes.” But if they didn’t go so far, they wanted the men to have a functional understanding of the scriptures.
Synagogues had a women’s section. That’s right: The Pharisees permitted women’s education. They didn’t expect (nor did they want) women to become scholars. But they did expect them to know the Law, same as the men: “A man is required to teach the Law to his daughter.” (Mishna, Sota 3.4e) You can’t obey it, or pass it down to your kids, if you don’t yourself know it. And throughout the Magnificat, Mary demonstrated she did know it. ’Cause, you know, all the quotes.
For I’m your god, the LORD.
I’m El-Qanná/‘Possessive God.’
I have children suffer consequences for their parents’ evil
—and the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—
when they hate me.
But I show love to a thousand generations
when they love me and observe my commands.
My heart is happy in the LORD. […]
The experts’ bows are cracked.
The stumblers are belted with courage.
The well-fed have hired themselves out for bread.
The hungry have stopped being hungry. […]
The LORD makes people either destitute or rich.
Some he lays low; some he exalts.
He lifts the poor from the dirt.
He exalts the needy from the landfill.
He puts them in the seat of rich patrons.
He assigns them positions of honor.
For the things which hold up the earth are the LORD’s.
He set them up.
—Hannah, 1 Samuel 2.1, 4-5, 7-8 KWL
My life exults in the LORD.
His salvation thrills it.
—David, Psalm 35.9 KWL
The prowling life is satisfied.
He’s filled the starving life with goodness.
—Psalm 107.9 KWL
He sent the ransom for his people:
He instructed his child in his holy covenant.
His name is respected.
—Psalm 111.9 KWL
You’ll give Jacob the truth.
You’ll show love to Abraham.
You swore these things to our ancestors long ago.
—Micah, Micah 7.20 KWL
Of course there are other verses. But even if you’re taking your imagery from the bible, you still have to put it all together, as Mary did.
The structure of the poem.
People tend to divide the Magnificat into two parts. First, Mary spoke on how God blessed her personally. Lk 1.46-50 Second, Mary spoke on how God turns the world upside down in order to make it right. Lk 1.51-55 The key to Mary’s thinking is in her statement, “He scattered those who were overconfident in their thinking.” If you think you know how the world works, but your thinking is entirely based on your own comfortable position, are you in for a shocker. (Fellow Americans: Pay attention.)
Mary began by pointing out how her soul and spirit—the immaterial parts of her, which moderns refer to as our “consciousness”—recognize God’s greatness. Partly in comparison with her position, “the lowness of his slave,” because it’s how she thought of herself. Lk 1.38 Partly because she realized she’s now part of salvation history: She referred to “the God who saves me,” for she of course believed, as Jews did, the whole point of Messiah is salvation. Her son’s name Jesus Lk 1.31 means “the LORD saves.” She didn’t yet know how he’d save them; only that the first step was to get born and raised. And she got to raise him.
Much too much emphasis is made on how Mary birthed Jesus, and not enough on how she raised Jesus. Probably that’s because a lot of Christians unconsciously think since Jesus is God, he needed no one to raise him: He already knew everything, and knew better. They point to how he taught the scribes in Jerusalem when he was only 12, Lk 2.41-51 or how the folks in his homeland wondered where he got all his wisdom. Mk 6.2 Or they even borrow some stories out of the ridiculous apocryphal gospels. They don’t understand how, when Jesus gave up his divine privileges, Pp 2.7 this includes his all-knowingness. The only knowledge he took with him was that of the Father. Jn 7.29 The rest he had to learn—from his parents.
Mary appreciated all God had done for her, and the honor he’d given her, and said “His mercy, to those who fear him, lasts for generations,” loosely quoting Exodus. Ex 20.6
Her lowliness led her to recall God likes to use the lowly to accomplish his goals. They recognize their achievements are only done through God’s power, not their own. They appreciate him more. So Mary proclaimed a few of the things God does to put the world topsy-turvy to establish his Kingdom. He scatters the overconfident, knocks down dynasties, fills the hungry and empties the wealthy, and looks out for Israel—an occupied vassal state of the mighty Roman Empire—because it was founded on God’s relationship with their trusting ancestor Abraham.
Yep, Mary understood how God worked. It’s why she was well-equipped to raise him.