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Meaning Behind The Magnificat

Rev. Karen Chraska shares why the Magnificat is so meaningful to her:

Special songs signify special occasions: “Happy Birthday” at a birthday party, “The National Anthem” at a Sporting Event or Patriotic Concert, “Silent Night” at a Christmas Eve candlelight service. When I am happy, I sing.  When I am sad, I sometimes sing uplifting songs to make me happy. Music can express deep feelings and emotions that words sometimes can’t. There are words in scripture to challenge, encourage, teach, praise, and inspire, but there are also songs and hymns in scripture that do all those things too.

This year we've been exploring Mary’s Song or the Magnificat, also called a canticle, which is a hymn or chant from a typically from a Biblical text. In the Gospel (Good News) of Luke 1:46-55 the Virgin Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. When the baby moves in Elizabeth’s womb, Elizabeth praises Mary for her deep faith in God. Mary responds with the hymn of praise known as the Magnificat.

The Magnificat is one of the most ancient of Christian hymns. It is often sung or read as a part of evening prayers or vespers for Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican services and in other churches where vespers are celebrated. 

The style of the song is typical of Old Testament poetry. Mary rejoices that she has been chosen to give birth to the promised Messiah (Luke 1:46-48). Mary praises God for God’s power, holiness, and mercy (Luke 1:49-50). Mary proclaims what God will do through the Messiah (Luke 1:51-53). Mary extols God for keeping God’s promise to Abraham (Luke 1:54-55).

Magnificat is named after the first line in the Latin (Magnificat anima mea Dominum or “My Soul magnifies the Lord”). 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on His humble servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation

He has shown the strength of his arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of His servant Israel for He has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.

Music is throughout the scriptures. The book of Psalms is actually one hundred and fifty songs most of which are attributed to David. In Exodus 15, Moses and the Israelites sang a song to the Lord. Hannah’s Song is found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In addition to Mary’s Song, there are several other hymns in the book of Luke including: Zechariah’s (1:68-79) the Angel’s (2:13-14), and Simeon’s (2:28-32).  

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, whose brother Charles wrote more than 6,000 hymns, encourages us as a people of faith to sing spiritually. This is an excerpt taken from Wesley’s Select Hymns and the quote is printed in the front of our United Methodist Hymnal:

“Above all sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”

So, like Mary, let’s sing and rejoice in the Lord throughout this Christmas season!
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