And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary’s words of praise were uttered in the reign of Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BCE–14 CE), when she was pregnant with the Lord Jesus. All around her was evidence of Roman power — the soldiers occupying Palestine, the decree that would send her and Joseph to Bethlehem, the taxes that had to be paid to Rome.
Virgil (70–19 BCE) had praised Augustus Caesar as “son of a god, who will renew a golden age in Latium” in his great epic, The Aeneid (6.1049–50). Yet Mary carried in her womb another king, who was and is the true Son of God.
Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra and ended the Roman civil wars. Mary’s God scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and brought down the mighty from their thrones. Augustus created the principate, subtly changing the defunct Roman republic into an empire. Mary’s God sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things.
Mary’s words exuded a confidence and joy that defied the “reality” in which she lived. Is not this a picture of the two-fold reality in which God’s people have lived throughout the ages? Each age has its own Augustus and manifestations of Augustan might, but the eternal God who came to his people in Mary’s womb continues to bring down the mighty from their thrones, to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and to fill the hungry with good things.
Mary’s song of praise offers comfort indeed — but not for the proud and mighty and rich whose king is Augustus, whom (if we are honest) God’s people often envy and emulate consciously or subconsciously. The comfort is for the hungry, who look for a greater kingdom than the Augustan empire.
Dr. Gloria Tseng is an associate professor of history at Hope College.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.