Like the Benedictus, this is a Gospel Canticle drawn from Luke 1. Where that canticle focuses on the work of salvation by Jesus Christ, especially as to be preached by John, this canticle focuses on the experience of salvation to be wrought by Jesus, particularly in line with the language of the Old Testament prophets.
Comments on the Text
In the text of this canticle, the Blessed Virgin Mary “magnifies” or “proclaims the greatness” of God, rejoicing in a litany of wonderful accomplishments that have been brought about by his hand. The first five verses (as the Prayer Book prints it) are more personal. She is a lowly handmaiden, regarded by the Lord, all generations will called her blessed for the great honor bestowed on her in becoming the mother of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh. This special role granted to her in the course of salvation history magnifies her name, akin to how she magnifies God in her prayer.
Her observation “his mercy is on those who fear him” forms a transition from the first to the second half of the canticle. With what comes before, she includes herself as one who fears God and been shown great mercy and grace, but her inclusion of “all generations” indicates that the entire world shall be blessed by the Son she then carried.
In the second half, Mary’s several “He has…” statements are easier to pray in the context of the Church’s worship after the fact, but form very much a groundbreaking text. Worshipers can look back to the Cross and easily proclaim that God has shown his strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, and so forth. And, although we can rightly celebrate this through Mary’s Canticle, the placement of these words before the birth of Jesus indicate that there is a Gospel to celebrate even then. In the incarnation itself, God has begun the several reversals that these verses describe. As the final verses sums them up, it is a matter of God bringing his ancient promises to fruition. As far back as Abraham, the course of salvation history has been driving relentlessly toward the appearance of God’s Anointed One (or Messiah, or Christ) who finally appears in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Thus, in the evening, the worshiper celebrates the faithfulness of God who keeps his promises and has initiated a great reversal of worldly values and powers in the provision of his Son.
On a secondary note, this Canticle also provides the worshiper with the primary biblical example of what it is to venerate Mary. All generations will call her blessed, God has regarded her lowliness, he has magnified her. And all this is celebrated in the context of her role in God’s work of redemption: his ancient promises see their answer in her womb, in accordance with her faithfulness. Where, with most Saints, the Church remembers their faith and works that point backwards in time to Christ, Mary’s faith and actions point to a present Christ. She “received Jesus” in a more literal sense than anyone else – this is a blessed magnification that God has bestowed upon her, and the Church celebrates the work of the Lord in her.
History in the Prayer Books
This canticle has been a part of the Evening Prayer of the Church (or Vespers) at least since the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict. The Prayer Book tradition has maintained its position as the first canticle – the one read after the Old Testament lesson – excepting only the first American Prayer Book. Although the Additional Directions for the Daily Office in the 1979 Book suggested more variable use of it, the primary text of the liturgy still held the Magnificat in its traditional place.
The classical Prayer Books appointed Psalm 98 as an alternative. The first American Prayer Book appointed Psalm 98 and 92 instead of the Magnificat, and those two Psalms remained as options alongside the Magnificat in the subsequent two Prayer Books.