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?