By Joan Mahoney
“My Soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …”
Luke 1: 46-47
And Mary said, “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.”
Luke 1: 46-55
Martin Luther said of Mary’s song (The Magnificat), “Here, the tender mother of Christ teaches us, with her words and by the example of her experience, how to know, love, and praise God”. (LW21:301) His simple interpretation: “God exalts those of low degree; Mary is a simple, lowly maiden and for that very reason is allowed to experience great things; human beings look up, above themselves, to things that are splendid and glorious and showy, while God looks into the depths, chooses what is inconspicuous, what is nothing. It is ‘his manner’ to look into the depths and behold things that are disregarded. For where man’s strength ends, God’s strength begins – and the reverse as well.”
Martin Luther began writing his “Commentary on the Magnificat” in late 1520 as a response/gift to the 17 year old prince, John Frederick (later elector of Saxony, also known as ‘the Magnanimous”). Having to give up working on the text to appear at the Imperial Diet of Worms, he sent what he had written to the prince, but didn’t get to continue working on it until he was in hiding at Wartburg Castle after his condemnation at the Diet.
“Luther’s purpose in writing this commentary for the young prince was to provide some instruction, and at the very least reminders. In his opinion, it rebuked many of the vices and failures that plague people in the position of leadership. Rulers can be so wrapped up in their power and wealth that they forget about God and the fact that He is the giver of all good gifts (and can take them away again). Just as a right understanding of Mary’s ‘humility’ can place devotion to her upon the proper footing, so also a right understanding of her song, with its teaching about God and how He regards the proud and the humble, can teach a ruler how to be grateful to God and serve the people with justice.
Two important results came from Luther’s new translation of the Magnificat. The first, in his perspective, the high regard and excessive devotion for Mary in the late-medieval church could no longer be maintained. It is wrong to suggest that Mary somehow merited or earned the privilege of bearing God’s son through her great virtue because we can earn nothing from God – any gift we receive from God comes through pure grace and is undeserved. Ascribing merit or deserving virtue to Mary would lessen God’s grace. We should take her words seriously and realize God deserves all the credit – he looked at and chose someone who was ignored and even despised by everyone.
The second important result of Luther’s shift in interpretation is that now respect for or veneration of Mary can be placed on the proper footing. She is a simple girl with no high opinions of herself, great expectations or ambitions for the future – a truly humble person, who doesn’t realize she’s humble. She should be recognized and praised for her great faith and willingness, despite challenges to herself, to be the Mother of God. Mary should not be thought of as ‘a goddess who could grant gifts or render aid’ as she didn’t do anything to earn these titles, and insists in her own song that all honor be given to God alone.
Luther closed his commentary with a prayer that Christ would grant us a right understanding of the Magnificat, and asked that it be granted ‘through the intercession, and for the sake of his dear mother Mary’. For Luther, Mary is helping all of us by providing this beautiful and theologically rich song for us. In the Magnificat, she teaches us how to pray and models the proper attitude that we should take toward God – she turns all the glory toward God, and praises him alone.
Mary intercedes for us in that she serves as a sign that says, ‘Look what God has done for me!’ She serves as an example of what God will do, and in fact has already done for us. Mary has already received the benefits that God has promised to all of us, and so she stands as the sign and surety that we also will receive blessing and salvation.”
So, during this season of Advent, let us rejoice in the words of the Magnificat and reflect on our humble beginnings. Praise be to our God above!
God’s peace and multitude of blessings to one and all this Christmas season.
 The Theology of Martin Luther - A Critical Assessment, by Hans-Martin Barth, pp.81-82
 Excerpted from “The Annotated Luther – Pastoral Writings – Vol. 4; Mary Jane Haemig, Editor; pp. 307-313
This blog is run by the council members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Logan, UT. For more information, check out our church's website at princeopeace.org.