The meaning of this mysterious passage is obscure, and many interpretations have been suggested. The child who is born is clearly the Messiah. This is shown by the application of the messianic Psalm 2:9 to the child in verse 5, and by the proclamation that follows his exaltation to the throne of God. But who is the woman? There are three possibilities:
1. She is the old Israel, the nation from whom the Messiah came. Much in this passage suggests the old Israel waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Old Testament background suggests this (see Isaiah 66:7). According to this view, the seer is taking up and partly Christianizing earlier pictures of Israel waiting for the coming of the Messiah.
2. The woman is the Church, the new Israel, the mother of the faithful. This is supported by 12:17, which speaks of other children belonging to the woman who “keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”
3. An interpretation popular among medieval expositors and revived in a somewhat more sophisticated form in recent Catholic exegesis (and clearly accepted by the choice of this passage for this feast) equates the woman with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Probably there is no need to choose between these three interpretations. For Mary is the daughter of Zion, the quintessential expression of the old Israel as the community of faith and obedience awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the community in which the Messiah is born.
But she is also the quintessential expression of the new Israel, of those who “believe” and are justified on the grounds of their faith, of those who obey his word and who suffer for the testimony of Jesus.
In its original intention, this psalm celebrates the marriage of an Israelite king to a foreign princess. In order to fit it to its liturgical use here, an allegorical interpretation has to be given.
The king in the psalm has to be equated with the Messiah (there is New Testament precedence for this in Hebrews 1:8-9); the queen, with Israel, his bride. This provides an indirect connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary as the personification of Israel.
But the allegory must not be pressed. Not only does it do violence to the original meaning, but it does not fit the desired application.
For Mary is the mother rather than the bride of Christ, and she is his bride only insofar as she is the personification of the true Israel, one who believed in him (Acts 1:14).
This is the passage to which the Protestants appeal against the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary. It asserts that all human beings are in bondage to death, and that they can only attain to immortality through the resurrection of the dead. Christ, however, has broken the bondage of death and has become the first fruits of the dead.
Meanwhile, all in Christ await their resurrection until the parousia. There is, therefore, no place in the “order” for a prior resurrection of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
It must be left to Catholic exegetes to square the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary with this scripture. As an Anglican, the present writer would simply claim that the life which all believers have is inalienable by death, that therefore the Blessed Virgin Mary, like all the saints, has some kind of continuing existence in Christ (see Revelation 6:9), and that we express the high honor due her by picturing her as exalted to the very throne of God.
This gospel falls into two parts—the visitation narrative and the Magnificat.
There is an interesting textual problem in verse 46. Some manuscripts read “Elizabeth said,” a reading that would fit the typology: Hannah-Samuel/Elizabeth-John the Baptist.
It is arguable, however, that in the structure of the Lucan infancy narratives, the purpose of which is to bring out the relation of John to Jesus as that of forerunner to the Messiah, of inferior to superior, the Magnificat must be assigned to Mary.
Perhaps the pre-Lucan source, which quite likely came from the “Baptist” circles, had attributed the song (modeled on the song of Hannah) to Elizabeth, and Luke himself transferred it to Mary.
The Magnificat should be read, not as an individual utterance of Mary, but as the utterance of the representative of the true Israel. This is indicated by the switch from the first person singular to the third person plural in verse 50.
It is the true Israel personfied by Mary who rejoices in the Lord at the coming of the Messiah, whose humiliation (“low estate”) the Lord regards, and who henceforth will be called “blessed” as the people to whom the Messiah has come. This is not to downgrade Mary, but to exalt her role as the key-pin of salvation history.