Mary’s Magnificat

And Mary said:

      “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed:

the Almighty has done great things for me

and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him

in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,

and has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel

for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

the promise he made to our fathers,

to Abraham and his children forever.”

~Whole reading: Luke 1:39-53

Instead of reflecting on the entire Gospel reading for the Feast of the Assumption, I decided to concentrate on the splendid Magnificat, or the Canticle of Mary. It is a strident song of Christian triumph, rooted in the mission of the Messiah, who was expected to bring both justice and peace.

The Canticle is so named because its first line in Latin is: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”. It is pronounced “mah-nyee-fee-caht” the “gn” acting the same as in the word lasagna. You may notice that this word is similar to our word “magnify” and indeed some translations say: “My soul magnifies the Lord”. This is a perfect summary of Mary’s role in salvation history. Contrary to the accusation that Catholics worship Mary, we believe her praise and work puts Our Lord in the forefront, making him larger. In the same way a magnifying glass is not the same as what we are looking at but serves to enlarge the image. Mary is transparent and the glorious image of Christ shines through her. She helps us to know his image better and to recognize it in every time and place.

We see that she calls herself “a lowly servant” The mother of the Messiah who is to rule all Israel shows stunning humility. She calls herself a handmaid rather than a wife, not daring to put herself equal with God. And because of this God exalts her: “All generations will call me blessed”. Throughout history, we see abundant artwork and poetry about Mary. The Madonna became a popular subject in both the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance. The Byzantine tradition displays glittering icons of the Theotokos. She is the “great woman” known to all ages, the ideal mother and figure of the feminine. Every Catholic blesses her in the Hail Mary prayer, which has been recited for centuries.

Mary praises the very name of God because he is a God who does great things. His name, sacred and great, could not be spoken by the Jewish people. They believed both creative and destructive power lie in that name. He is rightly called “holy”. Everything that is precious, good, noble, and mighty is exclaimed in the word “holy”. The Church in her liturgy employs the Sanctus or “thrice holy hymn” where God’s holiness is not proclaimed once but three times. Holy indeed is his name.

The next lines echo a typical motif of Jewish hymns of praise, a retelling of God’s works. After the crossing of the red sea, Moses’s sister Miriam, leads a song of praise: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”( Exodus 15:21). Along with the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1-18), these form a kind of battle-hymn, saying how the Lord has destroyed the enemies of the Israelites. Mary, whose name is similar to Miriam, sings her own battle hymn in anticipation of the Messiah’s victory. He has finally come to scatter the proud who sit in places of power and cast out the corrupt kings, to instill a kingship of righteousness and peace. All the prophecies, have long awaited the “righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5). Now these words are finally coming to pass. How could Mary not burst into a song of joy?

A Kingdom of the poor is proclaimed where the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. We are reminded of Jesus’s words to the rich young man: “Sell all you have and give to the poor” (Matt 19:21). The young man went away, empty for he had many possessions. There is a great irony in the fact that the wealthiest nations have the highest levels of unhappiness and neurological disorders. Those who are abundant in material things risk being hollow on the inside. Jesus challenges the idea that more is better. He multiplied bread for those who had nothing and he lifted up a child saying heaven belonged to such as these (Mark 9:27). One can imagine a scrawny dirt-covered child being raised up onto the throne of Jesus’s lap. We can picture Jesus embracing Lazarus who once lay dead in his tomb. In all this, “he has lifted up the lowly”.

Lastly, Mary sings of the promises of God, who promised the kingdom of David would endure forever. The Jews, occupied by a foreign empire and weakened in resolve, clutched to this promise. It was repeated in the synagogues and sang in hymns. The words are put right into God’s mouth: “Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness– and I will not lie to David.” (Psalm 89:35). We sense the great love God has for his people, never forgetting their plight and rising to rescue them. He respects and cherishes men so much that he keeps his word to them even when they do not keep promises to him. Such is the nature of covenant relationship. It is built on grace. God stoops down and extends his hand. He binds us by his own goodness and merit, not our own- for such would quickly fail.

Mary’s ending words: “his servant Israel” can be compared to the later: “Abraham and his children”. A larger national relationship changes into a more familial one. Perhaps we see the kind of relationship that is to develop? With Jesus’s birth, something new and awesome is to come. Reconciliation, mercy and justice have arrived. The servant becomes a son, given the very life of God. Drawn from every corner of the world, these sons and daughters feast at one table where mortality is absorbed into the divine. The wicked will be conquered, death trampled underfoot by the cross. As the Church of Christ extends throughout history, we are made sharers in both God’s work and his inheritance. We will continue singing the song of victory, our Magnificat, even in the homeland of heaven. And all of this started with one, young maiden, betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph, who said “yes”.

magnificat

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