The Gospel begins with a carefully crafted literary prologue (Luke 1:1-4), which is echoed at the beginning of the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1). This prologue recognizes the existence of other narratives about the life and teaching of Jesus, perhaps the Gospel of Mark.
Our author implicitly claims to present a better version, one that is “accurate” and “in order,” based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. The goal of the narrative is not objective and unbiased reporting. It is offered to Theophilus, whose name means “Beloved of God,” so that he might be properly instructed (the Greek word is “catechized”). Whether Theophilus is a real patron or an ideal recipient, the author’s goal is clear.
Luke then presents a carefully balanced picture of the origins of the Messiah. Jesus’ origin story cannot be told without that of John the Baptist. The following chart displays the careful symmetries.
|John the Baptist||Jesus|
|Good News Celebrated||1:39-45||1:46-56 (Magnificat)|
|Birth Celebrated||1:67-80 (Benedictus)||2:8-21|
|Jesus at 12||2:41-52|
Angels foretell birth of two prophetic figures. Their proclamations are met with varying degrees of skepticism, but also with a magnificent poetic celebration: the Magnificat, by Mary, Jesus’ mother.
At the birth of each prophet, there is celebration. John’s birth prompts the Benedictus, a prayer from his father Zachariah. The birth of Jesus elicits the acclaim of angels and shepherds. In fulfillment of the requirements of the Law, his parents present Jesus in the Temple. Two prophetic figures, Simeon and Anna, welcome him and give portents of things to come.
The historical significance of the birth of Jesus is highlighted by the chronological notices that begin chapter 2. Those remarks also introduce a tension that will run through the whole of Luke and Acts. Imperial chronology fixes the time of the birth of Jesus; it also reminds the reader of the dominant political power that will stand in judgment over the movement that begins with Jesus’ birth.
The account of Jesus’ trip to the Temple as a youth concludes the overture to the gospel. The setting for this story of the precocious Jesus is carefully chosen, returning the reader to the venue where Zachariah first heard the good news of John’s birth. Through such narrative devices, and through the constant echoes of the Old Testament in these chapters, Luke insists on the continuity of the history of God’s salvific will.
The hymnic pieces in this story, like choral odes in a Greek drama, comment on the significance of the narrated events. Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat, derives its name from the first word of the Latin version. She proclaims it on the occasion of a visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Like the matriarchs of ancient Israel, Elizabeth has become unexpectedly pregnant in old age. Mary comes to assist and to celebrate. Elizabeth’s child kicks in the womb, a sign of joy at his cousin’s arrival. Elizabeth offers a warm greeting. All this elicits Mary’s elegiac response.
The Magnificat is modeled on the prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel in 1 Sam 2:1-10. In many ways, Hannah resembles Elizabeth. The canticle celebrates the surprising turns that God’s providence produces. In terms that resound in modern liberation theologies, God is praised for the divine preference for the poor and excluded. God’s wondrous action in history prominently includes the exaltation of the lowly—and the humbling of the proud.
Scholars have attempted to find a social setting in the life of Israel in which such claims might make sense. It is possible that the Magnificat had a life prior to its use by Luke. In that case, it would have celebrated the triumph of Israel over oppressive forces.
Whatever its prior history, the poem expresses the sense of deliverance and vindication experienced by the two characters: Mary, the young woman who conceived a child out of wedlock, and Elizabeth, the old woman marginalized because she could not produce a child. The poem’s imagery also foreshadows elements of the plot of the Gospel, in which lowly folk are exalted and the mighty brought low. The poem also has a programmatic function: the good news of Jesus is somehow about such radical reversals.
But how, a sensitive reader might ask, is such a theology to be implemented in the here and now? Should followers of Jesus serve as instruments for the exaltation of the lowly and the humbling of the proud? Or are there other readings of the poem that are somewhat less radical, less obtrusive into spheres of economics and politics?