Mary’s and Hannah’s Songs

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Virgin Mary with baby Jesus illustration by Br. Martin Erspamer, OSB, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Indiana. Used with permission.

Female voices dominate the Liturgy of the Word on December 22. Hannah’s voice comes to us in the first reading and the responsorial psalm, while Mary’s voice saturates the Gospel. We call Mary’s song the “Magnificat” based on its first word in the Latin translation (Magnificat anima mea Dominium, “My soul magnifies the Lord”). Mary’s canticle is one of the most important biblical texts in the life of the Church.  

Rarely, though, do we hear the Magnificat as it was heard and understood in its own time and place. This week, we catch a rare glimpse of how it emerged in first-century Judaism and in conversation with the Jewish holy Scriptures (our Old Testament), especially Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel 1–2. When we hear Hannah’s song in Mary’s, and vice versa, we begin to understand Mary—or Miriam, as she was called in Hebrew—not just as an icon of the Church but as flesh-and-blood, a young Jewish woman living in the first century.  

Hannah’s story begins in 1 Samuel 1, where we learn that she is infertile and longs for a child. In the Temple, she prays fervently to God for a son, promising that if her prayer is granted, she will dedicate him to God’s service (1:10-11). According to the story, Hannah is so overcome by prayer that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk and tells her to “sober up” (1:14). Hannah then sets him straight, and Eli is so impressed that he adds his own prayer to hers. Hannah indeed bears a child and names him Samuel, or “God hears” in Hebrew (1:20).  

In Friday’s first reading, Hannah fulfills her promise to God. She brings her son to the Temple in Shiloh after he is weaned and leaves him with Eli (1:25-28). As she departs, she breaks into song (1 Sam 2:1-10), part of which is our responsorial psalm.  

Mary would have known Hannah’s story well. As a young Jewish woman, she likely took comfort in Hannah’s courage amid social stereotypes and judgment. Mary, too, needed courage to survive the gossip surrounding her pregnancy, which she does when confronting not just human but divine authority, as we see when she presses the angel Gabriel for more information surrounding her pregnancy in Luke 1:34.  

In Hannah’s and Mary’s songs on December 22, we hear expressions of joy and thanksgiving over God’s goodness. For both women, what warrants rejoicing is God granting new life despite all odds and amid immense social and religious pressures. Pregnancy and birth lead to powerful declarations of God’s authority and justice, not as future promises but as present enactments in the world. In her song, Mary describes how God will scatter the proud, humble the mighty, elevate the lowly, and fill the hungry with all “good things” (Luke 1:51- 53). Her song mimics Hannah’s in stressing that God controls human destiny and dismantles human hierarchies to raise up or exalt the “lowly” or humiliated (Luke 1:48, 52; 1 Sam 1:11).  

Through the voices of two women, these songs make radical claims about the realities of God’s order as both accomplished and still unfolding. These women tell us that God’s justice in the world cannot be wrangled by any human authority, that all voices are being heard, and that God has already and is currently bringing about the world’s overturning. This week, will we allow these women to sing out in our churches?  

© Liturgical Press.

Mahri Leonard-Fleckman

Mahri Leonard-Fleckman is an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the Religious Studies Department at College of the Holy Cross.

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