The Meaning of the Magnificat

Covenant History in Mary’s Song

In Luke 1, Mary’s song sounds nothing like Christmas as we understand it. But Mary understood Christmas in its Covenant context. Here, at last, was the firstborn of an eternal dynasty.

“All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Matthew 24:8)

Watching old movies on TV as children, we always rolled our eyes when somebody suddenly, and for no apparent reason, broke into song. In the 1970s, these films were a remnant of a musical culture that was passing away, but the songs in the Bible are even worse. Not only do these musical interludes interrupt the storyline, the lyrics seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Like Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10), the Magnificat (named for its first word in the Latin translation), dredges up extraneous and embarrassingly earthy themes from the Old Testament which are irrelevant to us today, an artefact of a culture which has passed away. Mary sings of themes which are not only disturbingly political, they are entirely foreign to our “pietistic” understanding of Christmas. Peter Leithart writes:

When the Old Testament is mentioned at all, Christmas hymns tend to reach back to Adam. Jesus is the “Second Adam from above” who has come to “efface Adam’s likeness.” Jesus is David’s Son, but how many Christmas hymns mention Abraham? It’s as if the whole history of Israel has not happened. Christmas hymns do not seem to fulfill the longing expressed in Advent hymns, but some other longing.

What did Jesus come to do? Listening to Advent hymns, you’d think He comes to restore Israel, comfort Jerusalem, bring light to the nations, to do some global geo-political restructuring. Listening to Christmas hymns, you’d think He comes to do something quite different. He comes “to free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.” He will “stamp His likeness” in the place of Adam’s. “He hath oped (oped ?) the heavenly door, and man is blessed forevermore.” “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.” All true enough – but where is Abraham? Where is Israel? Where is exile and the fulfillment of Israel’s longings? It’s as if the whole history of Israel has been bypassed. It’s as if Jesus was born just outside Eden, immediately after Adam’s sin.1Peter J. Leithart, How NT Wright Stole Christmas.

Jesus warms our hearts at Advent and breaks our hearts at Easter, and He will come to wipe our eyes at the final resurrection, but Mary’s song makes little sense to Christians who believe the domain of Christ ends with personal faith. She sings of kings toppled and the humble exalted, but to those who are ignorant of first century history, her Covenant claims are nothing more than ideology. The complaint of the Jews that the apostles were turning their world “upside down” should give us a clue as to the fulfilment of these prophetic words (Acts 17:5-6).

But Christian teachers rarely speak about the events with which the Magnificat is concerned, either because it is politically incorrect (considered to be offensive to modern Jews) or does not proclaim a message deemed positive enough for modern pulpits. Mary sings of things which are unspeakable: the terrors of the persecution of the firstfruits Church — a tribulation greater than the Church would ever suffer again (Matthew 24:21) — and the subsequent horrors of the Jewish war. The water and blood of the virgin birth would be “magnified,” leading to that outpoured by the Roman spear, but beyond that to the end of the Temple, the consummation of all sacrifices for sins in the baptisms of “blameless” witnesses across the empire. The world was only divided by circumcision that it might be conquered by the Gospel.

The Magnificat does begin in the Garden, a song of the enmity between the seed of the Woman and the serpent, and it does promise deliverance for the World, all nations. But between the Garden and the World was the enmity between Jew and Gentile in the Law of Moses. In AD70, all of Judaism was a veil of flesh to be torn, the Jewish identity a door to be opened, the entire Levitical history a dark saying to be revealed.2This is the subject matter of the book of Revelation. The blood of the apostles and prophets flowed in the streets, to be followed by the slaying of the “second goat,” their persecutors, by the birds and the beasts. The child in Mary’s womb came to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34).

A Veiled Threat

Since Mary’s song follows what I call the “Bible Matrix,” it is also a retelling of Israel’s history, one which includes both Adam and Abraham. Read in this light, the song is not only a celebration of promises soon to be fulfilled for all humanity, it is also a threat to “the kings of the earth” (Revelation 6:15; 17:2; 18:9; 21:24). These were the rulers of the oikoumene representing a sacred architecture begun in Genesis: the Pharisees (Garden), the Herods (Land) and the Caesars (World). This “liturgical” confession of Mary is every bit as threatening as the curses upon Israel from the lips of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:26; 43-44).

And Mary said, Magnifies my soul the Lord,
and rejoices my spirit in God, my Saviour.
Initiation: The first step concerns a call to service (Genesis) or, in sacrificial terms, the choosing of the blameless animal. Mary is “the Woman” who magnifies the Lord by doing His will on earth. Her reference to God, then to herself, fulfils the first commandments of Moses. It is a word-and-response, a sacrifice of flesh (her life) and then a sacrifice of praise. Genesis begins and ends with a young man given charge over the food for the nations. Filled with the Spirit of God, Joseph was the offspring of a barren womb who ruled over the nations and tried the hearts of his brothers with serpentine wisdom. (Sabbath/Creation)
For he looked upon the humiliation of his handmaiden;
Behold indeed from henceforth will count me blessed all generations.
Delegation: The second step concerns the setting apart, or sanctification of the new servant (Exodus). In sacrificial terms, the sacrifice is cut and bloodied. At this point in prophetic texts, the prophets fall on their faces before God and are then exalted and given a new job to do, a new word. In Mary’s case, this was the Word incarnate. The reference to generations alludes to circumcision as a ceremonial “cutting off” of kingly human seed, like that of Cain and Canaan and Esau, in order that priestly seed like Abel and Shem and Jacob might inherit the promises. (Passover/Division)
For has done to me great things the mighty one, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is to generations and generations, to those fearing him.
Presentation: Step three is the lifting up of the sacrifice as a legal representative, or tithe (Leviticus). The action here is entirely objective, passive, priestly. Mary is the dry land of Day 3, a Canaan in famine, which is given the potential to bear seed through the creation of plants bearing grain and fruit. That which was humbled is now exalted, the flesh and blood presented as bread and wine at God’s table. (Firstfruits/Ascension)
He has shown strength with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the thought of their heart.
Purification: The right arm is the sword bearer, the king as the legal representative of God, judging on His behalf. Day 4 concerned the creation of the governing lights, symbols of the kings of the earth. Here, the priest-king deals with those who exalt themselves (Numbers). In sacrificial terms, true kingdom comes down in seraphic tongues of fire, incinerating the old body, and stars fall from the heavens. The heart of this sin was Satan, who was cast out of heaven at the ascension of Christ. But that “Sanctuary” act in heaven brought repercussions on the earth. (Pentecost/Testing)
He has brought down rulers from thrones
and exalted the humble.
Transformation: Holy fire transforms the flesh into fragrant smoke, a new kind of Body, which ascends to heaven as a memorial (Deuteronomy). But this memorial, like the cry of Abel, is a witness against those who tread the blood of the sacrifice underfoot. The nations are subject to their kings, but Israel’s kings were always subject to the prophets of God, those who, like Nathan, reminded them of the conditions of their rule (submission to heaven) and warned them of impending judgment if they did not repent. On God’s behalf, Moses took the Promised Land from an idolatrous Israel and gave it to a new generation. On God’s behalf, Samuel took the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David. On God’s behalf, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the other prophets took the kingdom from a murderous, adulterous, idolatrous Israel and gave it to an Israel chastened through 70 years of exile. Likewise, the apostles of Christ would soon take the kingdom from the Herods and give it to a people who would bear the fruits of righteousness, an Israel where everyone of the Lord’s people is a Spirit-filled prophet (Numbers 11:29). The Herods would persecute Christ and His Church in the way Saul persecuted David, but God would once again use this period of suffering in the wilderness to prepare the humble for rule. (Trumpets/Maturity)
Those hungering he has filled with good things,
and those being rich he has sent away empty.
Vindication: In sacrificial terms, the offering is accepted and the world is reconciled in God’s blameless representatives. Food is Adamic, and riches are Bridal. Here, the blessings and curses of the Covenant are poured out in a dual action which alludes to the two-edged sword of the redeemer, and the double approach of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement: once for the priesthood and once for the people. For the humble to be avenged, the proud must be cut off. The land and vineyards of the spiritual Canaanites would be given to those who were circumcised in heart (Joshua). The culmination of this was the siege of Jerusalem, a city which was “circumcised” like Jericho, where Jews once again became cannibals according to the curses of Moses, and Roman and Syrian soldiers cut them open, dead or alive, searching for the gold which some swallowed to smuggle out of the city. All of Judah suffered the fate of Judas, and for the same sins, sent from the table as the Azal goat. Just as a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, the Word-sword that Jesus would bring would cut the Old Covenant people in two to make something new (Luke 2:35; Matthew 10:34; Revelation 1:16). (Atonement/Conquest)
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed, forever.
Representation: With Israel purified, she can now witness to the nations as the “invested” representative of God (Judges). Christ and His Church are Adam and Eve departing with God’s full blessing to subdue the World. However, the difference between the dominion mandate and the Great Commission is the difference between “forming” and “filling.” The apostles turned the world upside down because it was time for the second half of the chiasm, the “filling” of the nations rather than their forming. Jesus was a Jew who had no children. The mercy of God was demonstrated to Israel in God’s long-suffering between AD30 and AD70. She was not cut off like Sodom or the other Canaanite kingdoms. She was made fertile like Sarah, but with a new kind of son, born of the Spirit. (Booths/Glorification)

Receiving the Implanted Word

Mary’s song is indeed political, but she sings as part of a triune process, one sourced in heaven but measured out on the earth. Once the architectural significance of the Magnificat is understood, its beauty becomes even more apparent:

Garden – Above – Father – WORD
Gabriel comes to Mary to declare her fruitful, the opposite of the intent of the serpent in Eden.
Land – Beside – Son – SACRAMENT
Mary then visits Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, for three months. Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Spirit, blesses the fruit of her womb. Instead of the rivalry between Cain and Abel, Ham and Shem, Esau and Jacob, and Perez and Zerah, the older child — a the greatest of all born of women (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28) — blesses the younger. As a Levite and a Nazarite, John represented both the priesthood of the Garden and the priest-warriors of the Land who would forego their “vineyard” inheritance until their holy war was over. 
Mary responds with a song which brings an end to all brotherly rivalry, the enmity between the seeds, between Jew and Gentile, priesthood and kingdom, in the ascension and enthronement of the world’s first true priest-king, the establishment of a royal priesthood of all nations, and a Covenant succession of Spirit rather than flesh.
World – Below – Spirit – GOVERNMENT
Finally, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and he, too, prophesies but his focus shifts our attention from the kings of Israel to the nations which surrounded them, the domain of the prophet.

Like the Magnificat, the structure of the chapter itself is Covenant-shaped. Notice the symmetrical correspondence between the announcement of the birth of John and its fulfilment. These two steps flank the Annunciation, which is at the center of the structure. Zechariah is the faithless Adamic “Covenant head” at Ascension, and Elizabeth and Mary are the silver trumpets of the Covenant Body at Maturity. Finally, Zechariah becomes an “Abraham” at Glorification, a son of heaven who by faith becomes a father on earth.

Initiation: Luke’s testimony to Theophilus
(Sabbath – Creation – Light)
Delegation: The birth of John is foretold 
(Passover – Division – Waters)
Presentation: Zechariah is silenced
(Firstfruits – Ascension – Land & Fruit Bearers)
Purification: Gabriel speaks to Mary
(Pentecost – Testing – Governing Lights)
Transformation: The dual witness of Elizabeth and Mary3For more on the significance of the placement of these pregnant women, see “Sex and Architecture” in Michael Bull, Inquietude: Essays for a People without Eyes.
(Trumpets – Maturity – Hosts)
Vindication: The birth of John the Baptist 
(Atonement – Conquest – Mediators)
Representation: Zechariah’s testimony to the Lord and to his new son
(Booths – Glorification – Rest)


The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus led not only to the destruction of Mary’s own culture and its sacrifices for sin, the city of Jerusalem and the tyranny of the Herods, but also to the end of the incumbent Roman dynasty, the beginning of the conversion of Rome. This first victory of the Church of Jesus Christ changed history forever. The songs of Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Mary are the songs of the Warrior Bride, the Church militant, still saving the humble and deposing tyrants in the power of God through sacrificial service, suffering and song.

For further structural background, please refer to Bible Matrix: An Introduction to the DNA of the Scriptures.
If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

References   [ + ]

1. Peter J. Leithart, How NT Wright Stole Christmas.
2. This is the subject matter of the book of Revelation.
3. For more on the significance of the placement of these pregnant women, see “Sex and Architecture” in Michael Bull, Inquietude: Essays for a People without Eyes.

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