The Magnificat is Mary’s prayer/poem/hymn of praise found in Luke 1:46–55.
Luke 1 records many of the events preliminary to the birth of Jesus, leading up to the famous passage in Luke 2. The Magnificat is part of this introductory section of Luke.
Luke 1:5–24 foretells the coming of John the Baptist, who is to prepare the way for the Messiah. An angel appears to the priest Zechariah while he is performing his duties in the temple and tells him that he will have a son whom he is to name John. This is shocking news, since Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are childless. Elizabeth had been barren and is well past child-bearing years. Elizabeth also happens to be the cousin of Mary.
In Luke 1:26–38 an angel appears to Mary and explains that, even though she is a virgin, she is to give birth to the Messiah. While Mary expresses great faith, no doubt she also had a lot of questions and some uncertainty, as this was something completely different from anything that had ever happened to any other human being. Perhaps she wondered how her parents and Joseph, her fiancé, would respond. (We know from Matthew 1 that this was an issue!) So, perhaps wanting to talk to someone outside of her immediate family circle, Mary decided to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the Judean hill country.
Luke 1:39–45 records the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who is about 6 months pregnant at this time, is filled with the Holy Spirit and reports that, the moment she heard Mary’s voice, her unborn baby (John) leaped in her womb. Elizabeth then goes on to bless Mary.
In Luke 1:46–55 Mary responds to Elizabeth’s blessing with what is now commonly called the Magnificat. Some Bibles will label this passage the “Song of Mary,” although the Bible does not report that she sang it. (The Magnificat is poetic and is now sung at various services during the Advent/Christmas season, especially in churches with a liturgical tradition.) The first line of Mary’s response is translated variously:
• NASB: My soul exalts the Lord
• NIV: My soul glorifies the Lord
• KJV: My soul doth magnify the Lord
• ESV: My soul magnifies the Lord
The Latin translation of Mary’s response begins with the word magnificat, which simply means “magnify” (or “exalt,” “glorify,” etc.). The Magnificat is a poem of praise to God, praising Him for His blessing to Mary and His faithfulness to Israel. The Magnificat also highlights a series of reversals in which the proud are humbled and the humble are exalted—not the least being a poor young girl who will be the mother of the Messiah.
Here is the text of the Magnificat, as found in the English Standard Version:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
Commentators have pointed out that the Magnificat is full of quotations of and allusions to passages in the Old Testament. Many of the truths Mary expresses find a counterpart in Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. The Magnificat also foreshadows many themes that are addressed later in the book of Luke and in the ministry of Jesus.