The Christian text that has been set to music more than any other—save the Ordinary of the Mass—is probably the song of the Virgin Mary designated by its initial Latin word, Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). Churches that maintain a Daily Office sing or recite this text early every morning (in the East) or at evening prayers (in Western liturgical churches).
The narrative in the first chapter of St. Luke's Gospel describes briefly the historical occasion on which Mary's declaration of praise occurred. When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary her coming miraculous motherhood, he also informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, despite her advanced years, was six months pregnant: "Nothing will be impossible with God." Since Elizabeth had long suffered reproach for her barrenness (cf. Luke 1:25), we can imagine that Mary's hasty visit to the hill country was motivated by a desire to share in her cousin's joy, not to be congratulated for her own miraculous condition.
But with the arrival of Mary, Elizabeth's blessed gladness is quickly reoriented within an even more astonishing context. The joyful agitation of the very body of the blessing carried within her is the stimulus for her effusive response to her much younger—and unwed—kinswoman. After Mary's greeting, Elizabeth proclaims that Mary and the fruit of her womb are extraordinarily blessed. The Magnificat is Mary's grateful and eloquent response to the cause of her blessedness, framing her condition within the drama of God's specific redemptive work over millennia.
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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