The text of the canticle is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-55) where it is spoken by the Virgin Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist, the child moves within Elizabeth's womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings what is now known as the Magnificat in response.
Mary's Magnificat, celebrated only in Luke's Gospel, is one of four hymns, distilled from a collection of early Jewish-Christian canticles, which complement the promise/fulfillment theme of Luke's infancy narrative. These songs are Mary's Magnificat; Zechariah's Benedictus (1:67-79); the angels' Gloria in Excelsis (2:13-14); and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32). In form and content, these four psalms are patterned on the "hymns of praise" in Israel's Psalter. In structure, these songs reflect the compositions of pre-Christian contemporary Jewish hymnology. The first stanza displays graphically a characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry—synonymous parallelism—in ascribing praise to God: "my soul" mirrors "my spirit"; "proclaims the greatness" with "has found gladness"; "of the Lord" with "in God my Savior." The balance of the opening two lines bursts out into a dual magnificat of declaring the greatness of and finding delight in God. The third stanza again demonstrates parallelism, but in this instance, three contrasting parallels: the proud are reversed by the low estate, the mighty by those of low degree, and the rich by the hungry.
Although there is some scholarly discussion of whether the historical Mary herself actually proclaimed this canticle, Luke portrays her as the singer of this song of reversals and the interpreter of the contemporary events taking place. Mary symbolizes both ancient Israel and the Lucan faith-community as the author/singer of the Magnificat.
The canticle echoes several Old Testament biblical passages, but the most pronounced allusions are to the Song of Hannah, from the Books of Samuel (1Samuel 2:1-10). Scriptural echoes from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings complement the main allusions to Hannah's "magnificat of rejoicing" in l Samuel 2:1-10. Along with the Benedictus, as well as several Old Testament canticles, the Magnificat is included in the Book of Odes, an ancient liturgical collection found in some manuscripts of the Septuagint.
"More honourable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word: true Theotokos, we magnify thee."
As a canticle, the Magnificat has frequently been set to music. Most compositions were originally intended for liturgical use, especially for Vesper services and celebrations of the Visitation, but some are also performed in concert.
In Nicaragua, the Magnificat is a favourite prayer among many peasants and is often carried as an amulet. During the Somoza years, campesinos were required to carry proof of having voted for Somoza; this document was mockingly referred to as the Magnificat.
The Magnificat has also been covered by Richard Wu in the album "Let Morning Shine". The album was aimed to ameliorate the lives of North Koreans.
^Since 1979 the official Latin text of the Bible for the Catholic Church is the revised Vulgate, and this text is "to be used especially in the sacred Liturgy but also as suitable for other things", as laid down by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitution Scripturarum thesaurus of 25 April of that year. However, the use of the text given in earlier editions of liturgical books is permitted as an extraordinary (exceptional) form. In addition to other differences in spelling and punctuation, the earlier form has, in place of "et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo" (second line), "Et exultavit spiritus meus: in Deo salutari meo"; and in place of "in progenies et progenies" (line 8), "a progenie in progenies".