The Magnificat is a Bold Prayer!

I pray you might indulge me a little speculation that cuts against the usual “visuals” surrounding the Magnificat. And , if what I say does not please your sensibilities I ask pardon now, and once again your indulgence.

In our western culture we tend to think of Mary in very soft focus, humbly praying, head bowed, quiet and almost shy in her demeanor. And this may all be true. But as I read Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat day after day, and as I read it today’s Gospel, I cannot help but be struck at how bold and charismatic it is. Many of its phrases are taken from ancient Israel and stitched together by Mary in a wondrous and creative way. But as a prayer, it is no gentle meditation. It is one that makes you want to jump to your feet.

My soul Magnifies the Lord! My Spirit REJOICES in God my Savior!

 As I have prayed this prayer every day for the last 25 years I have come to experience that I cannot see Mary saying  this prayer with hands folded and head bowed. I see, rather, a joyful, young woman, filled with exuberance, head raised in serene confidence and hands upraised in joyful, yes, even charismatic,  gestures.  African American Catholics often refer to this joyful disposition as “havin’ church,” and would say something like: “Mother Mary and Sister Elizabeth were havin’ some church up in there!”

The scene sets up with Mary travelling “in haste” to see Elizabeth. Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth and John the Baptist starts leaping for joy in her womb. You might say he gets things started. The text from Luke then says Elizabeth “cried out with a loud voice: Most blessed are you among women…!” Mary goes on to respond how her soul rejoices in God her savior. No sour-faced saints here, these women are radiant with joy and exuberantly expressing it. Their havin’ church alright, joy beyond all measure is theirs.

This sort of exchange is not uncommon among some of the African American women in my parish. A not un-typical dialogue might go something like this:

A:    Girl,  you are looking radiant!
B:    Yes Lord! Your sister girl is blessed and highly favored! God’s been GOOD to me!
A:    Go on!…. God IS good!
B:    All the time!

Yes, it seems, from any straightforward reading of the Lucan text, that the Magnificat was not recited, it was boldly and joyfully proclaimed in a moment celebrated by two women. One who had come in haste bearing our savior,  and another, filled with the Holy Spirit and her infant dancing for joy in her womb. Two women filled with the joy of God, two women celebrating what God was doing in their lives. Mary proclaims, and she rejoices and says:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;  My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 

And it is also a prayer that is also bold, even edgy in its critique of the social order:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.

Mary announces a great reversal that is come. Her Son Jesus echoed it: Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). Some may which to spiritualize these words, and they surely do have a spiritual meaning. But their critique of the vainglory of this world cannot simply be seen as an abstraction or a generality. They have real meaning for the social order here and now. They surely mean we must learn to esteem the poor, the disabled, the weak. In this world they may need us, but as for the world that is to come, we will need them and their prayers to gain entry. And they, if they had faith, will have first places of honor. The reversal is coming, be careful what you call a blessing and what you call unfortunate. Be careful who and what you esteem and who and what you do not esteem. Yes, this is a bold and edgy prayer. It cuts right to the heart of the world’s vainglory.

So again, I beg your indulgence. I am aware that many have rather specific notions of what Mary is, or should be like. The portrait I have here presented is not the usual one in Western culture. But in the end, at least here, I see a portrait of a joyful, exuberant woman who is bold, even edgy in expressing what God is doing for her and for all Israel.

How do you see it?

34 Replies to “The Magnificat is a Bold Prayer!”

  1. I confess I see our Mother Mary as meek and humble, but I loved your rendering of the Magnificat. I view this in a similar light. Mary visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth already knows and Mary is no longer afraid so she can spill her joy. She is in a safe place. When she returns, we learn of Joseph’s dreams and we know not what she must endure from her neighbors and friends. I wonder if she sang it then. But with Elizabeth, she can and I am so happy it has been captured in the Gospel and Bach put it to music. I recently came across some Gregorian chants as well and they are beautiful too.

    By the way, I too am puzzled why in the Nativity movie the Magnificat was omitted. And I would never have picture Mary as pouty in the earlier part. Oh, what people do for dramatic effect. But the story of Jesus is the best story ever.

  2. Composer Andrew Carter’s “Maryland Magnificat” perfectly captures this prayer in the spirit that you present.

    I sang in a performance of this work several weeks ago. You should have seen the children’s choir jump on the CRASH of the cymbols in second measure of the Fecit Potentiam.

      1. I’ll see whether I can acquire one, and if I can I’ll send it to you. (If the recording I aquire is for the most recent performance, you’ll have to ignore the violas on the second movement, as they were intent on their own tempo.) The Maryland Magnificat really is a fantastic work, and it’s unfortunate it’s not had more play.

        The recent performance was a family affair: I sang with the altos, my 4th-grader sang with the children’s choir and my husband was drafted to play crash cymbals.

  3. Oh how true this rings for me and I am not the least bit charismatic (well, maybe a little but only when no one is looking…). I cannot see Mary as just acquiescing passively in the will of God, in the sense that she simply sets herself aside –she seems to actively and joyfully say a resounding yes not because God substituted His will for hers but because her own free will was so perfectly formed it joined in great passion with His in a collision of delight. That is what we are made for–not to lose ourselves but to be ourselves and Mary shows us how. It makes me want to dance for joy (but don’t tell anyone..) Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful post.

  4. Monsignor I found your piece comforting as always…. I really dont think that you needed to preface it by kinda apologizing for your rendering. The Blessed Mother was the perfect Woman…. joy HAD to be a part of Her very core and what better time to be exuberant than when she’s visiting her Elizabeth..?
    Merry Chirstmas to all..

    1. Yes, well I have learned that some people are very sensitive when it comes to their notions about Mary. I think the biblical portrait is sometimes at odds with more sentimental notions that we sometimes see today and am aware that some do not care for their vison of Mary to be altered.

  5. Msgr,

    Martin Luther was quoted as saying that if he were allowed to read only one piece of scripture, it would be the Magnificat. When faced with a stunning task as the Almighty reached down to touch her, she reached back… joyfully! She was, in a sense, our ambassador.

    I think that the black women in your congregation have it right. I’ve often thought that the Sistine Chapel fresco should show Our Lady, not Adam, reaching to touch Our Creator.

  6. A bold prayer by a bold person. It seems Mary was always on the move. When she went to visit Elizebeth, it appears she traveled alone, probally on an ass. The journey through the “hill country” I read once, took five days.

    The Song of Mary is the soul in ecstacy. It seems that when the unborn child in Elizebeth leaped with joy, a song leaped with joy to Mary’s lips. To sing a song is to possess one’s soul. Maria, the sister of Moses sang a song after the crossing of the Red Sea. Deborah sang after the defeat of the Canaanites. Hannah sang centuries before at the door of the Tabernacle of Shiloh, when she brought Samuel to “lend” him to the Lord. Mary’s song contained only praise, without any petitions.

    Many people come and go. Few are remembered, Mary was prophetic in saying all generations would call her Blessed. Like a great artist her song is gracefull, and revolutionary, or as Msgr Pope says “edgy.” It begins with her personal experiences, and ends when she identifies herself with the entire human race. She looks ahead, and sees the effect her Divine Son will have on mankind. “Behold, from this day forward, all generation shall count me blessed.” Because her Son is Divine, the greatest of painters like Michelangelo, and theologians like Bonaventure, St. Bernard, and Aquinas, and all of men have poured out praise, and veneration for Mother Mary. Proverb 31:29, surley must have been referring to Mary where it declares: “Many daughters (Women) have done virtuosly (admirable things), but thou excellest (surpass) them all.” Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces which come from Christ, and pass to us through Mary’s hands. Theotokos, Mother of God. Yes, Thank you Mother Mary, for in your liberty, you ‘boldly, and bravely’ said “YES!”

    Remember, O Most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. — Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother, To thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.

  7. “The Lord has done great things for me.” is my favorite line in all of scripture.

    I think Mary at that moment might not have had full comprehension of Gods plan for her but she understood that being highly favored by God – kept sinless – that “God had done great things” for her since her immaculate conception. Elizabeth, speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, called Mary “The Mother of my Lord” and this might have been a revelation to Mary, perhaps the first time she came to understand exactly why it was that God had kept her sinless her whole life.

    “The Lord has done great things for me” I think, is Mary’s recognition that she was kept sinless as she came to a fuller understanding of the reason why and what a great gift this state of grace was. Insofar as God has kept me away from certian sinful behavior (I’ve never had an attraction to gambling or drinking etc.) and as I have been freed from other habitual sins, I too can share Mary’s joy.

    I share your feelings about the Magnificat Monsignor Pope as I pray it nightly. It is a prayer of great joy and I often say to Mary, “Yes Mother, the Lord has done great things for me too! Yes Mother, my soul proclaims (magnifies) the greatness of the lord too!” It is a prayer of joyous gratitude.

    “Now you let your servant to in peace” is my second favorite line.


  8. When God decided to break into human history as a human being he turned the world upside down, and that started with Mary. How could the meek, humble, docile woman of pious legend ever have raised such a perplexing son and then not gone totally to pieces when he seemingly met an ignominious end on a cross? She was bold and feisty and so is her song.

  9. I once heard J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” put down because it is “too masculine.” No way! Mary may have been a little girl from a provincial town, but her “yes” to God is the stuff of heroic personality. Thank you for this beautiful article, in it you tell the truth about our Blessed Mother. She is never a show off. She does not shove herself to the forefront. She is not a feminist. She is a woman of wonderful strength and immense courage who makes a role model for us all. Praised be the woman who crushed the head of the serpent!

  10. Monsignor: I seldom comment in blogs, but as the year comes to a close I just have to thank you blessing me almost daily through your writings. I read you regularly, and am always blessed by your insight. Re Today, Mary is just so much more than a sweet, humble, jewish girl. She certainly is all of that, and then some. Actually, she is absolutely Indescribable! Merry Christmas to you!

  11. Father,

    What does the word “magnify” mean in this context? Does it mean increase? or reflection? or focus? Whenever I hear this verse, I am struck by that word. What does the greek say?


    1. Yes the Greek is μεγαλύνει (megalunei) meaning to make great, magnify ,to make conspicuous, to deem or declare great, to esteem highly, to extol, laud, or celebrate. Fundamentally it means that Mary manifests God’s glory, by God’s grace, or in some sense helps to make God’s glory more visible, again by his grace operative in her. The two most common ways of translating the Greek are Magnify and Proclaim – both are acceptable.

  12. I had heard from a source that in the end of Mary’s earthly life that she had taken the form of a leper woman ,absolutely ,beutiful story to the end

  13. Thank you so much, Monsignor! I chuckled when I read BHG’s comment about being charismatic “when no one’s looking.” I sometimes sit at Mass holding myself back from throwing up my arms in praise. I imagine myself doing that during the consecration or after a rousing Our Father. Sometimes I let myself go when I’m alone in prayer. Is there anything wrong with wanting to outwardly rejoice?? I guess not, since after reading your post pointing out to us that Mother Mary was filled with joy – how could she possibly contain herself?? I reflect greatly upon the words “in haste” … that tells me that Mary didn’t drag her feet in gloom and doom for 5 days or so on her way to see Elizabeth! And Mary probably was not some frail little waif who didn’t want to break a nail doing chores … no!! Two thousand years ago there were no drycleaners, washers, dryers, irons, dishwashers, microwaves, or frozen dinners! I am in no way scandalized by your post, Monsignor. If anything, I am invigorated in my love for our Blessed Mother, and her Son Who gave her to us at the foot of His cross. THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR ME, AND HOLY IS HIS NAME!! Amen, my sisters and brothers in the Lord!! Amen, Merry Christmas, and let it all hang out!!! 🙂

  14. I think what is true of Mary is true of us all. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is portrayed as the model disciple. We are all asked to be open to the Spirit; to nurture that new life within us, and thus bring God into the world. What she says in this prayer we can all say of ourselves, but to a greater degree for Mary. Each and every person proclaims the greatness of God. It is not egotistical of Mary to say this, and not egotistical for us to say it either. It is a true statement that we should all realize because it is a truth of creation. However, we we also sully and distort that greatness, and this too we should realize. However, I think if we can say this prayer along with Mary and realize that we proclaim the greatness of God and that each and every person proclaims the greatness of God, we would be less inclined to distort this greatness.

    And how about the ‘mighty outstretched arm of the Lord’ ? Say that while looking at a crucifix. Or, think of Jesus born in the food trough when saying ‘the hungry He has given every good thing.’; including a share in God’s life !

    In my opinion, after the Our Father this is the most important prayer.

  15. I agree with what you say and I do so much love this prayer. I, too, had the image of Mary as meek and mild, head bowed in prayer, always submissive. Then I went to one of the apparition sites in 1994 and at the time of the apparition, I felt a sense of power overshadow me that was beyond description. In my spiritual journal I wrote that it was like being in a nuclear furnace, only it was a protective shield, not destructive. I began to understand for the first time what it meant to be under Our Lady’s mantle. To this day I still get goose bumps thinking about it. I meditated for days on the sense of sheer, raw power I felt, and developed a keen awareness of what God was doing through her to protect us. But we have to place ourselves in her loving hands and trust in her love. More recenty, I became aware of the extension of this mission through the Flame of Love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary devotion, which is described in some detail at Mary has told us that “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” She says that the Flame of Love of her Immaculate Heart is Jesus Himself. This recalls Jesus’ statement in Luke that “I have come to set the world on fire.” All of these things are, to me, indicators of the rapidly approaching battle described in Revelation. I wonder if Mary foresaw all or part of this when she procaimed her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What a wonderful Mother we have!

  16. The Orthodox tradition which has affected the Catholic church of the Byzantine Rite holds that, when Mary first entered the temple at the age of three, she immediatey danced all the way from the door to the alter. I’ve heard that in many of the Orhtodox churches in Greece and North Africa the congregation begins to dance in a robust and frantic manner when the liturgy reachs the part of the Virgin Mary in honour of this belief. Some historians believe that the Ukrainian churches used to have this dancing until overland trade routes improved to the point where the steppes become more culturally connected to Western Europe than to the Eastern Mediterranean area.
    Recently someone more experienced in the older traditions than I recalls when Old Slavonic was used instead of Ukrainian and told me that in some churches the senior matriarch of the congregation used to do this dance on behalf of everyone.
    My personal experience won’t help on that one because I was very young and can only recall that the OId Slavonic was somewhat ponderous by our modern standards; like the English in the original King James Bible, but moreso. I’ve since forgotten both languages but can remember that the Old Slavonic was incredibly beautiful to my child mind of the time.
    And, if you don’t mind a brief aside, after a lot of busy searching I found a modern copy of some Greek records, which were allegedly written before the existance of Rome, which indicates that misunderstandings about the use of certain letters caused a mispronounciation which led to a confusion in how the Ethnic name “Slav” came into being. According to these records Slav did not come from the Latin Sclavus (slave) but a mispronounciaton of Slavonian as the Greek letter which sounded like our “L” and became a soft c as the soft v became “th” and Slavonian became Scythian in Western European records.
    If this is true; the ethnic name would mean (roughly) the glorious people. I admit that my self interest runs rampant here and will do my best to feel no resentment if the side comment doen’t make it to the ‘blog.

  17. My confessor told me last week to pray the Magnificat daily. (I made my total consecration to Jesus through Mary last spring.) I’ve been having a hard time relating to the prayer, making it mine, if you will. This meditation has helped me immeasurably. Thanks, Msgr.

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