We celebrated yesterday Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, when they were both pregnant and awaiting the births, respectively of Jesus and John. On the one hand, it is the most natural thing imaginable – two relatives rejoicing with one another, giving support to one another at a critical juncture in their lives.
But it’s clear that Luke has more in mind than this as he relates this story! The child in Elizabeth’s womb “leaps” at the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth is described as being suddenly “filled with the Holy Spirit” and crying, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” This is an encounter with prophetic dimensions – saying something, not only about the relationship of the two women, but the intertwined nature of their sons’ lives as well…lives which will affect the very history of the world!
The whole scene provides a context for Mary’s Song which begins a few verses later. It’s often been pointed out that the Magnificat is of the same type as the Song of Hannah in I Samuel 2. Both speak of rejoicing in the Lord, about the hungry being fed, and about the powerful and mighty being brought low.
It’s interesting that in certain ancient manuscripts, and in Irenaeus, and in Origen’s writings, there is the suggestion that the Magnificat in the original text may have been ascribed to Elizabeth rather than to Mary!
Although scholars today generally follow the traditional ascription of the Magnificat to Mary, the song would make sense on Elizabeth’s lips as well: both Hannah and Elizabeth were old; both Hannah and Elizabeth had been unable to bear children (a great grief, especially in their Jewish culture); in both cases their barrenness was overcome by a wondrous act of God; and they would each give birth to a prophet, a forerunner of the Messiah – Samuel and John.
Hear these words, just for a moment, as if they had been sung by Elizabeth, as a parallel piece to the Song of her husband Zechariah a little later in this chapter: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
Well, as I say, we will no doubt follow the weight of evidence that the Magnificat is Mary’s Song, nonetheless, the words stand on their own. They are powerful words of praise…and thanksgiving…and justice…and faithfulness…and they describe the actions of the God of Israel who always fulfills his promise to Abraham and his children…for ever. And so we say with Isaiah:
“Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel!” (Canticle 9, BCP 86)