Although in the Infancy Narrative Luke has various characters speak these canticles, modern Biblical Scholarship has moved away from thinking that these were actually composed by Mary, Zechariah, or Simeon. They have an overall common style and a poetic polish that persuades Scripture scholars that they don’t come from such individual, on-the-spot composition. Most scholars think that the canticles had a common origin and were adapted and inserted into the Infancy Narrative by Luke. Most think that all four canticles were taken over by Luke from other sources and inserted into his Gospel although Luke may have added some verses such as in chapter1,verse 48 to the Magnificat.

  1. “Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid – for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed for the Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is his name.”

What was the source from which Luke took these canticles if he did not compose them himself in writing the Gospel? There is no doubt whatever that they represent Jewish hymnic style and thought of the general period from 200 B.C. to A.D. 100. The dominant style and pattern of them is derived from the earlier poetry of Israel, i.e., the Psalms, the Books of the Prophets, and hymns in the Pentateuch and the Historical Books of the Old Testament. In the book “The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977) Fr. Brown quotes whole pages of Old Testament poetic background for each line of the Magnificat (358-60), the Benedictus (386-89), and the Nunc Dimittis (458).

So Jewish are the four Canticles in this Infancy Narrative that some scholars have thought that Luke took them over from a collection of hymns. Has Luke done harm if,  he has done this and placed them on the lips of  Gospel figures like Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon? On the contrary, his insight is most appropriate: If these were the hymns of early Jewish Christians, they now appear in the Gospel on the lips of the first Jewish believers in the good news about John the Baptist and Jesus.  Luke has skilfully made these canticles match the spokespersons, often following leads in the narrative of the Gospel itself. In  chapter 1:40 we are told that Mary greeted Elizabeth, but no words are reported. Yet the insertion of the Canticle the Magnificat (1:46-55) at this part of the story supplies her with words that (as we shall see) are most appropriate. In the opening words of the Magnificat, Mary echoes the opening words of Hannah’s Old Testament hymn found in 1 Samuel 2:1-2  The appropriateness of this goes beyond the fact that Hannah and Mary are the same sex. Hannah’s canticle is proclaimed because she has given birth to her firstborn son, while Mary has just conceived her firstborn.

As we shall see, although the Magnificat is a mosaic of Old Testament words and themes, some of the lines also anticipate the Beatitudes in Luke’s account of Jesus’ public ministry. Such a reaching forward in words is appropriate to place on Mary’s lips because she is a Gospel-ministry figure who has been brought back to the Infancy Narrative. Luke uses her words to bridge the Old Testament to the New Testament.

The Magnificat spoken by Mary to Elizabeth not only echoes the words spoken by Hannah on the birth of Samuel whom she offers to the Lord, it also anticipates the Gospel message, especially the Beatitudes and Woes spoken by Jesus in Luke 6:20-26. Many people are familiar with Matthew’s eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount and the phrases such as “ Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “hunger and thirst after for what is right.” But Luke has only four Beatitudes, and like sharp hammer blows they have no nice sounding, spiritualizing clauses like “in spirit or “after justice”;

  1. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

  2. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

  3. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

  4. Blessed are you when all hate you…, your reward is great in heaven.

And so that the reader will not miss that Jesus is talking about concrete poor, hungry, and suffering people, Luke follows this with four opposites – the Woes uttered by Jesus:

  1. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

  2. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger.

  3. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

  4. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”

The Magnificat, introduced into the Gospel by Luke, after Jesus had proclaimed such a Gospel in his public ministry, uses the Hebrew way of expression – the use of opposites to celebrate what God has done, exalting the lowly and the hungry, putting down the proud, the mighty, and the rich.

By placing this canticle on Mary’s lips,  Luke also makes a statement about discipleship and Gospel. In the annunciation scene Mary becomes the first disciple, indeed, the first Christian, by hearing the word, i.e. the good news of Jesus’ identity as Messiah and God’s Son, and by accepting it. In the Visitation she hastens to share this Gospel word – this Good News - with others, and in the Magnificat we have her interpretation of that Gospel word, resembling so closely the interpretation that her son had given it during his ministry in the Beatitudes.

This sequence gives us an important insight into Jesus himself as seen by the first Christians and their interpretation of his ministry. At the beginning of the public ministry in Luke’s Gospel (as in the other Gospels) God’s voice identifies Jesus as His Beloved Son (3:22) – the good news from the start is Christ centred. But when Jesus speaks the Gospel to people, he does not reiterate his own identity to people saying, “I am God’s Son.” Rather he interprets what the sending of the Son means, so that the Beatitudes and the Woes show the result in the history of salvation of his incarnation. In the Infancy Narrative Mary has heard from Gabriel the identity of Jesus as the Saviour of the world; but when she gives voice interpreting what she has heard, she does not proclaim the greatness of the saving God because He has sent the Messiah, His Son. Rather, her praise of Him interprets the sending: He has shown strength, exalting the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. In short (Luke 1:54-55):

  1. “He has helped His servant Israel

  2. in remembrance of His mercy,

  3. as He spoke unto our fathers,

  4. to Abraham and his children forever.”

The first Christian disciple, Mary, exemplifies the essential task of discipleship. After hearing the word of God and accepting it, we must share it with others, not by simply repeating it but by interpreting it and applying it in our own lives so that they can see it truly as good news.

The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat (Luke 1:26-56)

Pope Paul VI, in the last significant document he wrote on Mary (Marialis Cultis, February 1974) comments on what the Bible tells us about Mary in the Infancy Narratives and elsewhere:

  1. “The Virgin Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the Church as an example to be imitated, not precisely in the type of life she led and much less for the socio-cultural background in which she lived and which scarcely today exists anywhere. Rather, she is held up as an example to the faithful for the way in which in her own particular life she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God, because she heard the word of God and acted on it, and because charity and the spirit of service were the driving force of her actions. She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples.”

Of all the scenes that church uses in Advent liturgy, the Annunciation to Mary and, the Visitation to Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel would be best known to Christians. This is far more famous than the annunciations to Joseph about Jesus and to Zechariah about the birth of John the Baptist. This is the annunciation that has been taken up so frequently in spirituality, art, and in literature. Amidst the wealth of material offered by these scenes, as best fitting the Advent Season leading into Christmas, we focus tonight on Mary as the model disciple of her Son in receiving and reacting to the Gospel message. Some Catholic scholars have wished to rename the Annunciation scene as the calling of Mary as if its primary message was about her. The primary message is centred on the conception of Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son and what he will accomplish by way of salvation for those who depend on God. Nevertheless, exhibiting true Christian instinct that the gospel is not good news unless there is someone to hear it, Luke presents Mary as the first to hear and accept it and then to proclaim it. Thus he holds her up as the first and model disciple. The vocation of Mary, the disciple, is not the primary message of the Annunciation, but a necessary element of it in that her acceptance of God’s Will leads to the conception of Jesus and this blends perfectly with the Season of Advent.

In examining Mary’s discipleship we realise that we know very little about the psychology and personal feelings of the historical Mary; yet here Luke gives us our strongest New Testament evidence for the massively important fact that she was a disciple of Jesus. How important that is can be appreciated when we realize that we have no sense of this from Mark’s Gospel which clearly distinguishes between Mary (accompanied by Jesus’ brothers or male relatives ) on the one hand and his disciples on the other hand, with only the disciples being said to do the will of God (Mark 3:31-35). Matthew, who knows that Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit never clarifies that Mary became a disciple. Only John, the evangelist, exhibits the same positive view as Luke on this question of specifically bringing Jesus’ mother into the family of disciples; for he describes Jesus as constituting her to be the mother of the disciple whom he loves (the model disciple) and thus gives her a shared pre-eminence in discipleship. Reflecting on the role of Mary as a pre-eminent disciple was probably a second-stage development in New Testament thought. After Christians had reflected on the mystery of Jesus, they turned to reflect on what this meant to those who were close to him physically and then included that understanding in how the “good news.” was presented in the Gospel.


Luke introduces this scene with notes on time, place, and the primary characters. The time (the sixth month, i.e., of Elizabeth’s pregnancy) helps to call the reader’s attention to the relationship between the two annunciations. For the previous annunciation, the place was Jerusalem and the heritage was priestly – circumstances befitting Old Testament characters like Zechariah and Elizabeth. In this annunciation the place is Nazareth in Galilee and the heritage is Davidic – circumstances befitting Gospel characters like Mary and Joseph intimately involved with Jesus, whose public ministry will be in Galilee and who is the Messiah of the house of David.

Zechariah and Elizabeth in their piety have been yearning for a child, so that the conception of the Baptist was in part God’s answer to Zechariah’s prayers (Luke 1:13); but Mary is a virgin who has not yet been intimate with her husband, so that what happens is not a response to her yearning but a surprise initiative by God that neither Mary nor Joseph could have anticipated. John the Baptist’s conception, while a gift of God, involved an act of human intercourse. Mary’s conception involves a divine creative action without human intercourse; it is the work of the overshadowing Spirit, that same Spirit that hovered at the creation of the world when all was void (Gen 1:2). When one compares the Gabriel-Zechariah and Gabriel-Mary dialogues, there is a similarity of format, flowing from the set pattern of annunciations of birth that one can find in the Old Testament accounts of the births of Ishmael, Isaac, and Samson, and that also appears in Matthew’s annunciation of Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless, despite similarities, throughout Luke underlines the uniqueness of Jesus who, even in conception and birth, is greater that the Baptist (Luke 3:16).

Gabriel addresses Mary as the “Favoured One”. She is especially graced, or “full of Grace.” The favour or grace that Mary “has found with God” (1:30) is explained in future terms: She will conceive and give birth to Jesus. The address “Favoured One” anticipates that future favour with certitude, but it also corresponds to a status that Mary has already enjoyed. The one whom God has chosen for the conception of His Son is one who has already enjoyed His grace by the way she has lived. Her discipleship, as we shall see, comes into being when she says yes to God’s will about Jesus; but such readiness is possible for her because by God’s grace she has said yes to Him before. Thus Mary’s discipleship does not exhibit conversion but consistency. The same may be true for many of us at those unique moments when we are conscious of being invited to say yes to God’s will in something important.

As we look forward in Advent to the coming of Christ in glory and majesty and to celebrate his incarnation in history, let us ask ourselves how this year we are going to interpret for others what we believe happens at Christmas, so that they will be able to appreciate what the angel announced at the first Christmas (Luke 2:1011). “I announce to you good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day there is born in the city of David a saviour who is Messiah and Lord. “

The birth of Jesus is narrated in Luke’s Gospel at chapter 1:  1-20

The Resurrection of Jesus is narrated at chapter 24: 1-11

If we examine the two narratives we see how similar they are.

The Infancy Narrative in Luke’s Gospel, as in Matthew’s Gospel, presents the Gospel in miniature. In his Infancy Narrative there are four Canticles (hymns or psalms):

  1. In chapter one, the Benedictus and the Magnificat, which are read in the Gospels of the last week of Advent;

  2. In chapter two, the Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc Dimittis, which are read in the Gospels of the Christmas Season.

Father Brown was Auburn Professor of biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Among his many honorary doctorates in divinity and theology are those awarded by the European university faculties of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Uppsala and Louvain. He was simultaneously a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and a consulter of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity. In 1973 Father Brown was the only American named by Pope Paul VI to the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission.

He is author of some dozen books on the Bible, including a two-volume commentary on The Gospel According to John in the Anchor Bible Series (1966-1970), Priest and Bishop (1970), The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1973), Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church (1975) and the full-scale commentary of 600 pages on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, entitled The Birth of the Messiah (1977).