Last Sunday I was at a church at which Bach’s Magnificat was performed. As usual there was a booklet with the order of the service and the text of the Magnificat. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never really studied this text: for a theologian – though I did my master in comparative religion – a bit odd. What follows is not an exhaustive commentary, but some notes for understanding the text
The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel containing the Magnificat. Luke has by far the most elaborate narrative about the birth and childhood of Jesus, which may point to a fairly late date of this gospel (80-110 AD). The setting of the Magnificat is Mary’s visit to Elisabeth: Elisabeth praises Maria and God with words partly taken from the Old Testament and Mary answers with the Magnificat. This song is a combination of various quotes also from the Old Testament. The text is of course Greek, but it is possible that the original is not taken directly from the Septuagint, but an Aramaic or Hebrew text. The origin is unknown, but it could have been an early Christian psalm or a messianic Jewish psalm. This is however speculation: the only thing sure is that Luke used this text for his narrative, may be with some adaptations. It is interesting to note that in some old witnesses (some versions of the Old Latin and an Armenian text) of the Gospel of Luke the Magnificat is attributed to Elisabeth. It must be wrong, but the question why this change is speaker is puzzling.
The hymn is clearly eschatological, despite the use of perfect tenses: it imagines the kingdom of God being already there. The Latin is not that difficult, but there are some problems due to its Semitic background and the fact that it is a translation from Greek.
Luke 1. 46-55
46 Magnificat anima mea Dominum:
47 et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
48 Quia respexit humilitatem ancillæ suæ:
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes,
49 quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est:
et sanctum nomen ejus,
50 et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies
51 Fecit potentiam in brachio suo:
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
52 Deposuit potentes de sede,
et exaltavit humiles.
53 Esurientes implevit bonis:
et divites dimisit inanes.
54 Suscepit Israël puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiæ suæ:
55 sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini ejus in sæcula.
Magnificat…meo: the structure reminds of the so-called parallellismus membrorum: saying the same thing twice in different words, a poetic technique well-known from the psalms, hence anima and spiritus are variations and do not refer to two different concepts.
salutare –is (n.): salvation (apposition to Deo)
respicio respexi respectum: to have regard for, care for
ex hoc …quia: therefore...because
timentibus eum: within the Old Testament the notion of fearing God implies awe and respect, not just fear itself.
potentiam in brachio suo: the idea of the arm as symbol of strength occurs inter alia in psalm 117.15 and Is. 59.9.
dispergo dispersi dispersum: to scatter, disperse
mente cordis sui: mens does not mean `mind’ here, but (mental) attitude, disposition
depono deposui depositum: to bring down
exalto: to raise elevate (mostly used in ecclesiastical Latin)
esurio: to be hungry
inanis –e: empty-handed
suscipio suscepi susceptum: to take, lift up
recordor recordatus: to remember ( re + cor `to put back in the heart’)
Abraham et semini ejus: note the change in construction: dative instead of ad.
And now Bach!