The story of Jesus’ birth might be the most misquoted and misunderstood story in the gospels. Luke’s gospel account of both the annunciation and the nativity are strikingly unique, because not only does Luke meticulously detail the events but he also puts a woman, Mary, in the spotlight of the narrative—something that no other gospel writer does. Luke begins his gospel with several powerful women speaking and proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. But he notably features a lengthy monologue given by the youngest of these women: Mary, the Messiah’s own mother.
Luke 1:46–55, otherwise known as the Magnificat, is generally attributed to Mary as a song of praise. This is one of the longest monologues in the chapter and is Luke’s introduction and framework for the rest of his gospel. Sadly, many interpreters have demoted Mary’s song to just that—a song—and its significance to the structure of Luke’s gospel, as well as the nativity story, is lost. Mary’s song acts as a prophetic proclamation of God’s reversal of the curses found in Genesis 3:14–19 and the fulfillment of prophecy. More than just words of poetic praise, Mary becomes the prophetess that births God’s good works into the world through the Spirit.
In first addressing how Mary’s prophetic role influences our understanding of the importance of her gender, we must reflect on the significance of Luke choosing a woman to introduce the narrative. This is directly linked to Old Testament prophecies, such as Joel 2:28–32, where the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. Elizabeth and Mary have both interacted and received the Spirit in Luke’s narrative in lieu of their husbands. It is interesting to note that Luke does not mention Joseph at all—choosing to showcase the Spirit working through women in the place of the traditional patriarchal model. Mary becomes the symbol of the reversal of the patriarchal identity in Luke’s gospel. This lowly woman can bypass all her cultural bondage and be uplifted and used by God. This is essential not just for the nativity but for the rest of Luke’s gospel.
Luke utilizes verbal speech instead of action in this entire passage. Mary simply speaks. Mary takes no action—except perhaps obeying and rejoicing. Luke’s choice here emphasizes that the woman was inspired to speak in response to God’s actions and the Spirit’s prompting. Like the previous prophets of Israel, Mary is not acting herself; the actions she is speaking of are totally dependent on God. Mary’s revolution and proclamation are not inciting action or violence; rather, they encourage obedience and patience, understanding that it is God who will right the wrongs within the world. The utilization of speech and monologue, particularly from a woman, is historically significant to Luke’s audience.
There are several things that this consideration of Mary’s song as a prophetic speech act influences about the text. If read as just a song, we lose the significance in the mundane becoming prophetic. Mary’s speech being an act of prophecy radically changes our understanding about gender, empowerment, and worship.
The emphasis on Spirit, speech, and proclamation is not just found in Mary’s song—it is a pattern repeated by Luke throughout Acts. In his commentary on Luke, Joseph A. Fitzmyer suggests that Mary’s song resembles the speeches in Acts more than any other kind of writing. Peter Lang, in his book, The Magnificat within Lukan Theology, identifies and catalogues the Greek words Mary uses in her song and recognizes that Peter’s speech in Acts, Stephen’s speech, and some of Paul’s speeches are identically structured to Mary’s song. Linguistically, Lang asserts that Mary is birthing more than just the Messiah. Mary is prophesying and laying the foundation of what will be seen throughout the rest of the Luke-Acts narrative: Jesus will humble the proud (Luke 6:24), exalt the poor (Luke 6:20), and feed the hungry (Luke 9:10–17).
The Spirit is what begins the work in Mary and is active not only within her but outside of her to prompt her to proclaim God’s goodness to Elizabeth and all Israel. In this proclamation, Mary becomes the first follower of Christ through her confession.
In this passage Mary is praising God for what has occurred in her heart yet has not come to pass in the narrative, which shifts this monologue from simple praise to prophetic utterance. Mary’s proclamation is more than just a hymn of worship. Luke’s audience would have understood the historical emphasis Mary puts on the Israelite God and her recognition of the works of Christ before they even occur. This puts Mary into the category of the prophet speaking over the people of Israel.
It is not until Luke 4:17–21 that Christ claimed that the Old Testament scriptures had been fulfilled; yet, Mary is still speaking in terms of God having already fulfilled these things in Luke 1. Mary’s voice transcends time and speaks into the past, present, and future history of God’s people. Luke uses this to his advantage to highlight both how God is bringing about his salvation and what will come in the end times. In our present day, God has not yet made all things right; however, in Mary and in us, Christ has made things right today.
Mary gives us more than a song in Luke 1:46–55. Instead, we receive an outline to the entire work of Luke-Acts that is both prophetic and empowering. Mary is the exemplar of the modern prophetess that we have forgotten in our communities. Comparable to Peter’s sermon in Acts, the Beatitudes, and Stephen’s speech, Mary’s Magnificat is a confession of the goodness of God to humanity. This should be recognized as more than a song in our contemporary churches and should be utilized as a prophetic proclamation that tells us that God can use and empower anyone to accomplish his work—including a poor girl who considers herself a slave. The beauty in the Magnificat is that Mary can be understood as a second Hagar, a slave woman who responds to God faithfully and seeks out God’s justice.
The next time we recite or sing the annunciation, let us not see Mary simply as the submissive girl who sings of God’s goodness. Let us see her as the bold, spirit-filled prophetess, who sets up the entire framework of Luke’s gospel that is mimicked by Peter, Stephen, and Paul. This shift from song to prophecy shows Luke’s perspective on women and his emphasis on how the marginalized and oppressed have finally found their voices through Christ. Mary shows that women do have a place in the church and the gospel story—one of praise, prophecy, empowerment, and Spirit-birthing potential if only given the choice to speak.