For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.” (Luke 1:49-55 NLT)
Mary was a teenage girl, not a theologian, not even a student of theology. But her song has been remembered and studied for two thousand years, because it contains some of the very essence of who God is. When Luke wrote his biography of Jesus his aim was to for his readers to understand the nature and character of the God he had come to know. When he first heard this “song of Mary,” (often called the Magnificat,) which must have been well known in the early church, he realised how well it reflected God, and he decided it must be included right here in the beginning of his biography of Jesus.
Luke had not grown up a Christian. He was a Greek doctor. Many doctors in Ancient Rome were Greeks, either immigrants to the great city or freed slaves. Luke, of course, did not live in Rome; he was born in Antioch, in Syria. It is believed that he may have been born a slave, though at some stage he was freed. Wealthy families of the time often paid for the education of one of their slaves in order to have a family physician. Alternatively it is possible that he came from a medical family, though physicians in Ancient Greece were usually of noble heritage and not slaves. However, in a time of war and conquest, when Rome was the ascendant power, even a noble family may have ended up in chains under the oppressor. But Luke’s gospel betrays a compassion for the poor that may be more understandable if he was one of them than if he came from a family of the Greek nobility. Whatever the truth of his origins, to become a doctor Luke was trained in observation and reasoning, in the tradition of Hippocrates and his followers. If he followed any deity it was likely the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius.
However, Luke became a Christian, very possibly through the ministry of Paul. When he put his faith in God, it is was surely after careful thought and reflection, after listening, observing, weighing up the evidence and considering various possible causes for the extraordinary things he saw and heard in those exciting early days of the Christian faith. His medical training taught him to function this way, and the result of this process of deduction was that he put his faith in God and became a follower of Jesus. When he wrote his gospel he did so with a desire to record a careful account of all that had happened, not just to tell a fascinating story, but to give a foundation for the belief system and worldview that he had adopted as his own life’s guiding light.
Of all the gospel writers, only Luke chose to record the song of Mary in his account. He clearly saw it as life important. He had probably never met Mary, but he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the words that were remembered so lovingly by the first believers. He wondered how a young girl could make such profound pronouncements, but he understood the power of the Holy Spirit and how God could speak his deep truths through the most unlikely of individuals. He also understood that the humility of a young girl would make her more receptive to the word of God than an older, wiser sage who had come to recognise his own importance. If anyone could be believed it would be the teenage Mary. If God would speak through anyone, then a young girl would surely be the ideal choice.
Mary’s song was important to Luke because the more he reflected on it the more he admired the God who was its inspiration. It spoke of a God who loved the poor, who lifted up the humble. It revealed a God who was different to all the other gods he had ever heard of, and different to the society he saw around him. It spoke of a God who was not impressed by the things that the world saw as important, riches and status. It showed him a God who loved above all the common people of the world, and this was a God he could give his life to.
Mary’s song also indicated clearly the thing that stood in the way of closeness to God, that kept people apart from God, namely pride. Riches could be a problem, but perhaps that was because they lead to pride, the belief that we are self sufficient, that we can decide our own destiny, that we can do anything, that we have no need of God, that we are God. Pride is the problem, the ultimate separator from God, and not just from God, but from other people. Luke had seen the effect of pride since his youth, and as a member of a highly valued profession he knew how easy it was to fall into the belief that he was better than others, that he had power over others’ lives, that he deserved respect and honor. He knew that if he gave into the temptation to think this way that he could lose the thing that had become dearest to him, his connection to his Heavenly Father.
Mary’s song became a part of Luke’s own personal liturgy, a way of staying on track, and reminding himself of what was really important. It played the same role in the early church. The ideas it contains are just as important for us to keep in our hearts and minds today as we follow the path of our daily lives.