The Lukan Psalms: *Magnificat*
There are four songs associated with the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. Hughes Oliphant Old has referred to them as the “Lukan Psalms”—they are inspired songs evident in the New Testament after the close of the Old Testament canon. These could be considered the last of the Hebrew Psalms and at the same time, the earliest Christian hymns. Although all of the Bible’s songs of deliverance are in joyful response to what God has done for His people and to Who He is, these particular songs can rightly be termed “Christian” because they were songs specifically sung in response to Christ or in response to revelation about Him.
Mary’s Song – Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
Zechariah’s Song – Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79)
The Angels’ Song – Gloria (Luke 2:14)
Simeon’s Song – Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)
Specifically, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis are known as New Testament canticles. They are some of the most celebrated songs in the history of Christian worship. In the Divine or Canonical Hours of western Catholicism, the systematic services of prayer throughout the day, the Benedictus is sung in the morning; Magnificat is sung in the evening; Nunc dimittis is sung at night. In eastern Christianity, the Magnificat is sung on Sunday morning. And Lutherans often utilize the Nunc dimittis at the end of the Eucharist.
In the Anglican tradition, as of 1662, the evening and night canticles were merged into one service with other psalms and anthems known as Evensong. Both canticles are sung daily in Vespers and Evensong services. If you have ever attended an Evensong service, you have heard both canticles. Many English composers have written music for both canticles intending these to be utilized in the same service. And as in performances of the canonical Psalms of the Old Testament, these canticles are followed with settings of the Gloria Patri, clearly highlighting their New Testament, Trinitarian nature. Often music from the opening of the canticle recurs at the words of the Gloria Patri, “as it was in the beginning”—a way for the composer to cleverly use musical form to reinforce the textual idea. Virtually every significant church composer and many classical composers have composed music for these canticles over the years, especially the Magnificat. The setting by J. S. Bach is certainly one of the most celebrated. Bach set each significant line of the song as a separate movement, capturing the affect of that line in the music he composed.
Luke is the only gospel writer who recorded these songs. He is, I suppose, the church’s first hymnologist. The Magnificat has similarities to an opera aria or a Shakespearean soliloquy—the action almost stops so that the affects or emotions of the situation may be savored more deeply. Because poetry is a heightened form of expression, it forces us to slow down and savor and celebrate the salvation we have in Christ. Mary’s song/poem is a psalm that leads us into praise.
Some scholars have doubted that a young woman like Mary, who was just a teenager, could possibly have had the education to speak or sing such an amazing poem. But they likely deny that the Holy Spirit inspired her song. Mary obviously knew the Old Testament well. Mary’s song references the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2:1, 7-8. But Mary also quotes from Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 & 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah! There are numerous references to Psalm 98 in Mary’s song. Notice the many attributes of God one finds in the song: God’s power, holiness, mercy, and everlasting faithfulness in keeping His promises.
Mary did not dwell on her own happiness, but rejoiced in the being and character of God! That should be our own response to the good news of Christmas—to the gospel revealed in the Person of Christ—“my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”