It may be the strangest Christmas song ever crafted. Modern Christians rarely sing it, even though we often see its lyrics and hear them read aloud.
Its author was no secondhand source or distant observer but (more than) an eyewitness of what really transpired when God himself came into our world, was wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger. In fact, it was the songwriter herself who birthed him, wrapped him, and laid him there. The author is Jesus’s own mother.
Mary’s Magnificent Song
For far too long, I deeply misunderstood Mary’s carol in Luke 1:46–55, as if it were just a personal journal from a young peasant girl. After all, I thought, Mary must have understood so little at this point in the story, right?
I am finally recognizing, however, that Luke did not intend Mary’s poetic words to be a mere aside. They are the high point of his first chapter. As the rest of his Gospel makes plain, Luke stewarded what tight space he had with great care, not as an unbiased reporter but an inspired spokesman for the risen Christ. And while Mary’s “Magnificat,” as the church has come to call it (based on its first word in Latin), may sound strange to us today compared to other more popular carols, her lyrics represent some of the most important Christmas lines ever penned. They also give us one of the most profound glimpses into the heart of God in all the Scriptures.
“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.” (Luke 1:46–55)
Why She Wrote the Song
The song has three distinct parts. Verses 46–47 declare what Mary is doing in the hymn: praising God. Then verses 48–49 explain why: because of what God has done for her. Finally, the bulk of her song, verses 49–55, marvels at the surprising glory of her God, significant not only to her at that first Christmas but to all his people, all the time.
That final section (verses 49–55), which is unusually God-centered (he is the subject of every verb), is the heart and essence of Mary’s hymn and is a remarkable celebration of God and his ways, so counter to our natural human expectations. Mary celebrates the kind of God he is — different than us, shattering our paradigms — as he shows his strength not by recruiting the strong but by rescuing the weak.
When Mary gives the reason for her praise (Luke 1:48–49), it is curiously general. This is emphatically not a personal journal entry, but a song designed for the people of God, in all places, for generations to come. And it is not just deeply insightful about what God was doing at that first Christmas, but it is a penetrating summary of the whole Bible.
God’s Surprising Glory
Here, as a skilled theologian — or simply as one well-steeped in the Scriptures (like Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2) — Mary holds up the heart of God’s holiness (“holy is his name,” Luke 1:49) — that he is, in himself, of an order altogether different and greater than his creatures — by showing how he consistently acts differently than our human instincts. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways, but higher — as high as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:8–9). In God’s peculiar patterns, the older serves the younger (Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:12). This God rallies to the weak, not the strong.
He chooses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. He chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong. He chooses what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not — like a forgotten town called Nazareth and an unwed maiden carrying a child conceived without a human father — to bring to nothing things that are (1 Corinthians 1:27–28). He humbles the strong and magnifies his strength by exalting the weak. Christmas turns the world upside down.
Has this not been our experience of this God and his world? Over and over again, just when we think we have figured him out with our infinitesimally small human minds, he shatters our assumptions and plans. He turns the world on its head. Mary’s own son will literally embody this peculiar glory of God. And for those of us with eyes to see, like Mary, it is marvelous, the very wisdom of God, worth celebrating in song and in a life of praise.
God Magnified in Our Rejoicing
But even before her celebration of God’s rescue of the weak, Mary begins with an insight not to overlook. Her opening lines not only celebrate that God magnifies his strength in the weaknesses of his people but also how. How is God magnified in us? Not through human pride and confidence, nor through human wealth and strength, but through the humble heart of rejoicing in him.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46–47)
This is a life-changing lyric if you catch it — not just at Christmas but for all of the Christian life. God is magnified in his weak people when we, like Mary, rejoice in him.
You might say, “But that’s not what the song says. It says ‘and’ — not ‘when’ or ‘by’ or ‘through.’” The question, then, is how does the magnifying relate to the rejoicing?
The answer is that our spirit rejoicing in God magnifies God. Surely, his magnification increases his people’s rejoicing, but here the issue for Mary is what her soul and spirit does related to God’s magnification. And God is shown to be magnificent in Mary as she rejoices in him — because we magnify, or glorify, or honor what or whom we enjoy. We see in Mary what John Piper has demonstrated time and again for decades: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is not a peripheral truth for Mary, or at Christmas, or any time of year, but it is endlessly relevant and will be so eternally for God’s people as we grow and expand and deepen and ripen in our enjoyment of this God.
What Christmas Sings About God
We would do well this Christmas, and any time of year, to listen carefully to Mary’s strange song — strange to humans attuned to the music of the world, but deeply thrilling to those who have been given an ear for the God who is, not the God of our imaginations.
Neither Mary’s song, nor Christmas itself, is a peripheral revelation of the true God. Christmas is a window into his very heart, who he is year round and forever. He does indeed look, with mercy, on those who own their humble estate, to exalt them. While he looks, with terrifying justice, on the prideful, to humble them. And for those of us who are weak and heavy laden, it is marvelous in our eyes, and music to our ears.