Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Note: This post is one day late, because my home internet went down yesterday.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his 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.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Visitation, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1643

I was raised as a non-denominational Protestant. (I actually spent time in both types of ND churches: the closet Baptists and the closet Pentecostals.) Because of this, I really didn’t have much exposure to the liturgical tradition. On the other hand, though, I did experience some of it through music. The requiem service in particular was part of my experience as a violinist. In any case, though, I was never used to observing the dates of the liturgy.

Today is Visitation. The celebration of the visit Mary made to her cousin Elizabeth. The Gospel of Luke records a fascinating song that Mary sung upon this occasion. The Magnificat, named for the first word in Latin. “Magnifies.” My soul magnifies the Lord.

There is so much to love about this beautiful poem. As a classical musician, I have loved the settings of the Magnificat since I first heard Bach’s masterpiece - I can’t even remember how long ago it was, it has been so long.

The thing is, though, I didn’t really grasp just how interesting the text was until fairly recently. I mean, some of it made sense. Here was Mary, likely a young teen, pregnant and potentially about to be abandoned by her betrothed. (In that culture, she would have been executed, and even with Joseph’s merciful idea of ending the betrothal quietly, it probably would have been a sentence to a life of prostitution if her family rejected her.) But Joseph has his own visit from an angel, and reveals himself to be a thoroughly honorable and decent man.

So one can see the idea of the lowly young girl, destined to bear the Messiah. God looked on her low estate indeed. Generations since have indeed called her blessed. This I understood.

But how about the rest of the poem?

Scattering the proud? Casting down the powerful? Lifting the lowly? Feeding the hungry, while leaving the rich with nothing?

That’s the stuff of revolution.

In retrospect, I realized that I knew these words too, but from a different place. John Michael and Terry Talbot’s The Painter was my favorite sacred album for much of my childhood, and it can still bring me back to the boy I was with a listen. On that album is “Advent Suite,” kind of an apocalyptic mashup of prophecy and theology and some delightful guitar work…..and also a quote from the second part of the Magnificat. I had heard it yet did not understand the connection.

(Obviously, one reason I loved this album was the orchestral arrangement featuring the London Symphony.)  

One piece that eventually fell into place not too long ago was the realization that the Gospel writers weren’t historians as we understand the term. They were writing in each case with a distinct purpose and message. And more than that, each was telling the story within the framework of another older story. For Matthew, the Advent is a story of a “new Moses.”

For Luke, the theme is that the Messiah comes from the lowly, not the powerful, and throughout the whole book runs that theme. The kingdom is not for the great, for the powerful, for the religious or political establishment, but opposed to it.

A few other things then fell into place.

While the Synoptic Gospels have many of the same incidents and stories, there are subtle differences. 

It is Luke alone who records the appearance of angels to the shepherds and their visit to see the Messiah. Luke alone records the incident at the Pharisee’s house where he rebukes those who seek places of honor. (Luke 14) He advises taking the lowest place instead - and also admonishes those present to invite the lowest of the low to their banquets. This is followed by the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (which is also in Matthew) where the master of the feast has to find replacement guests.

Likewise, it is only in Luke that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Beggar is found. If you actually read the parable, the reason given for the beggar’s blessing and the rich man’s torment is their wealth during life. No more, no less.

In the list of woes to the religious leaders of the day, Matthew focuses on hypocrisy and the burdening of others. Luke, though his list is shorter and with less discussion, puts an interesting twist on the illustration of the cup which is clean on the outside but dirty on the inside. Matthew says to clean the inside and the outside will be clean. Luke explains how:

“Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you – be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

One more sealed the deal for me. Both Matthew and Luke contain a version of the Sermon on the Mount. We always hear the Matthew one. (Bill Gothard based his homeschool “curriculum” on the Matthew version, so I have a bit of PTSD when I read it.) There are similarities, but some striking differences.

Here is the Luke version:

Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
 Blessed are you who hunger now,
   for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
   when they exclude you and insult you
   and reject your name as evil,
       because of the Son of Man. 
 ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have already received your comfort. 
 Woe to you who are well fed now,
   for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
   for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich. There is a corresponding one to each of these, not just a list of blessings. Puts a different spin on things than Matthew, yes? I believe that is intentional, and that it means something. For the writer of Luke, it is the theme that pervades the narrative. The Kingdom of God doesn’t arise from the powerful nor does it concern itself with earthly power. The Kingdom is not, and never will be the religious establishment, but will consist of those on the margins who choose to follow. The prostitutes and tax collectors will enter before the religious leaders who place burdens on others and seek power. It’s an upside-down Kingdom.

The first shall be last, the last shall be first. The greatest shall be the one who is the servant of all.


I had the opportunity to play Bach’s Magnificat several years back. I’m a sucker for period instruments, so I picked this video to go with it. Bach’s music still thrills all these years later. I love how he packs so much rejoicing into the opening. “My soul magnifies the Lord!” 

Vivaldi, Telemann and many other Baroque era composers also wrote settings of the Magnificat, and they are worth hearing. I thought I would link a different style altogether by moving to the early Romantic Era, and Franz Schubert.


  1. This is why Luke is my favorite gospel.

    Also, I learned in seminary that for a while during the 1980s, the Magnificat was banned in several Central American Communist countries for being too revolutionary :)

    1. Very interesting about the banning of the Magnificat. Also ironic that the communists thought it was revolutionary...

  2. Luke's Gospel is also very pro-woman. Luke 8 records that there were women disciples, plus other women who supported Jesus financially.

    1. I agree. It has been interesting re-reading the New Testament with a more feminist viewpoint. It is amazing how many women disciples, apostles, and leaders are routinely glossed over by modern teachers. I guess they don't fit the patriarchy paradigm...

  3. Great post. Very powerful. I really enjoyed reading it. I actually grew up in the Anglican (Episcopalian) church, so I have been exposed to the liturgical tradition for most of my life. Mind you the church that I go to these days doesn't follow the liturgical calender as closely as the high church.