Generational Sin and the Promise of the Magnificat

Mary’s prayer teaches about the operation of Jesus’ grace through generations.

Sandro Botticelli, “Madonna of the Magnificat,” 1483
Sandro Botticelli, “Madonna of the Magnificat,” 1483 (photo: Public Domain)

The idea of “generational sin,” like the “prosperity gospel,” is problematic, but it has its sources in something genuinely scriptural. When the Lord tells Moses that sin will be passed down even into the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5 and 34:7), it certainly sounds as if he is making a point of punishing children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren for the sins of their forefathers. That was an expectation in Jesus’ time — recall the question his disciples asked about the blind man, whether it was his or his parents’ sin that caused his blindness. Jesus dispels their misperception, saying that this physical evil is not a generational curse, but rather a thing permitted so that “the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:1-3).

By implication, Jesus’ remark about the cause of the man’s blindness suggests that his questioners have misunderstood the Mosaic passage. Jesus denies that God would reach out of his way to physically punish descendants for their ancestors’ sins. He does not, however, deny that sin has a generational aspect. There are real human consequences to sin that do not end with us. Any parent knows that their children learn as much from what parents do as what they say — it is no wonder, then, that anger, sloth, pride, addictions and maladaptive coping mechanisms should have generational effects. A child who repeats his father’s swearing is not exactly deprived of free will in the matter, but certainly his is learned behavior.

In this sense, generational sin is a real phenomenon, though it might be well to borrow a phrase from the psychologists and recognize that it is sometimes “generational trauma,” while admitting that the way in which free will and inherited problems interact is complex, and that free will plays a significant part in most adults’ learned behavior. Still, so much of who we are as adult Christians has to do with our past that it is possible to be inextricably bound up by the facts that molded our personality and character.

In this context, one of the key promises of the New Testament (implicit in the passage about the blind man and explicit elsewhere) is that it is possible to end a cycle of generational evils. This was promised in the prophecy of Jeremiah, who writes of how in the new dispensation the sins of the fathers will no longer be visited upon the children: “In those days they shall say no more: ‘The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the teeth of the children are set on edge.’ But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that shall eat the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29-30).

This promise is reflected in Jesus’ interaction with the blind man, which reinterprets the way his listeners had thought about the wages of sin. But it is not simply that the New Testament clarifies how to think about the guilt of sin; in fact, it offers in the person of Jesus a way of transcending repetitive negative generational patterns. And it offers in the place of generational sin the image of generations of grace: grace as an inheritance passed from one Christian to another through the body of Christ and often specifically through the Christian family.

This idea of God’s graciousness is perhaps most dramatically represented in Our Lady’s Magnificat, the prayer she speaks during her Visitation to Elizabeth — a prayer offered daily in the Church’s Divine Office, and appearing regularly in the lectionary. Mary, rejoicing in God’s blessings, says that God’s mercy “is from generation unto generation upon those that fear him,” or, as the current translation puts it, “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” In the Vulgate it runs, misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.

Progenies is an interesting contrast here, and it has specific implications for the question of generational grace (as opposed to “generational sin”). Earlier, when Mary says that “all generations shall call me blessed,” the word for “generations” is generationes. In fact, both generatio and progenies mean “a generation of people” because of a derivative sense from their first meaning. Progenies means primarily “descent, lineage, race, family” while the first meaning of generatio is “begetting, generating, generation” (see, e.g., Lewis and Short).

Progenies, in other words, names a thing, whereas generatio names an act. When, therefore, Mary says Beatum me dicent omnes generationes, she is invoking, by etymology, a broad conception of genealogy. The generations here are not explicitly those of the gentes, the “tribes,” “nations,” or “gentiles,” that is, non-Jewish people; but the idea is sufficient to include them. Everyone begotten, Our Lady’s words imply, will call her blessed. This universality is beautifully captured in Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting of these words, when the meditative soprano solo of ”Quia respexit … beatum me dicent” (which concludes the third movement of his Magnificat) explodes without pause into a deafening choral “Omnes generationes” (for the fourth movement).

In contrast, Bach’s sixth movement, “Et misericordia,” is a melancholy duet between an alto and a tenor, two voices close near to each other in register but slightly different. Their parallel melodies, one climbing on top of the other and then sliding down, echoing, sallying cautiously out, and then retreating, make a good contrast to the previous bravura bass solo (“Quia fecit”) and the subsequent tutti movement (“Fecit potentiam”).

But Bach’s decision to render the bold, depositional verses of his Magnificat in cheery, forceful major, and the promises to the faithful who “fear [the Lord]” in minor, is nonetheless interesting. Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum runs the verse in full; and the soprano and tenor, even if Bach did not explicitly intend as much, offer as good a representation of two intertwined generations as one could wish. The mercy, the misericordia, is being handed down, propagated, from one generation to another.

Just as in the old dispensation, in the natural order of things, sin was propagated through descent, parents passing trauma and sin on through their lineage, one generation to the next, a progenie in progenies, so now, in the dispensation of grace, those who fear to offend God pass on the blessing, a progenie in progenies.