Mary's visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth, recorded in Luke 1:39-56, tells us of the importance of these two pregnant women. Elizabeth greets Mary with words that have come down through the ages: "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary responds with a prophetic song of praise that we know as the Magnificat.
My soul proclaims the greatness of our God,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
who has looked with favor on this lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
You O God have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.
You have mercy on those who fear you in every generation.
You have shown the strength of your arm,
and have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and have lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich you have sent away empty.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel,
for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
The promise you made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and their children for ever.
(Version by Frank Huber, 1999)
Taken out of the passage in Luke, Mary's song has been set to music thousands of times: in large choral works by composers such as J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, in liturgical settings used in worship (Evensong in the Episcopal and Anglican traditions, and Matins in the Eastern Orthodox Church), and of course, as congregational hymns. The metrical version from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 begins:
My soul and spirit, filled with joy,
My God and Saviour praise,
Whose goodness did from poor estate
This humble handmaid raise.
Nearly 350 years later, Miriam Therese Winter of the Medical Mission Sisters wrote a version called My soul gives glory to my God, which appears in some newer hymnals.
Somewhere in-between (probably around 1708) Isaac Watts wrote his version of the Magnificat, broadening it from the song of one woman to a hymn for the congregation. Back in the twentieth century we adapted it for contemporary use, taking Watts's original (which subtly warned of Marian idolatry in one verse) and building on it.
Our souls shall magnify our God,
In God the Savior we rejoice;
While we repeat the Virgin's song,
May the same spirit tune our voice.
The Highest saw her low estate,
And mighty things God's hand has done
For Mary, chosen to become
The mother of the Promised One.
Let every nation call her bless'd,
Let endless years prolong her fame;
And God above shall be ador'd;
Holy and mighty is God's Name.
To those that hope and trust in God
Whose mercy stands for ever sure:
From age to age the promise lives,
And God's performance is secure.
God spake to Abr'am and his line,
"In thee shall all the earth be blest;"
From Sarah's child, through ages long
We see the promise manifest.
And now no more shall Israel wait,
No more the world shall lie forlorn:
Lo, the desire of nations comes;
Behold, the Savior Christ is born!
Isaac Watts, c. 1708; adapt.
Tune: TRURO (L.M.)
from Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789