Seeing the Magnificat for the Bold and Edgy Prayer It Is

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!”

Havin’ Church – The scene sets up with Mary traveling “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?

19 Replies to “Seeing the Magnificat for the Bold and Edgy Prayer It Is”

  1. I sometimes like to imagine the scene in Ephesus, with Mary sitting near the fire, tending a pot of stew for her visitors, Paul and Luke, relating to the gospel author all those things she kept close to her heart all those years. I imagine her singing the Magnificat, a song of praise and prayer which I reckon she made up, with the words of Hannah in her memory as an influence, as she made the rocky way in haste to see her cousin in the hill country, singing God’s praises as she walked.

  2. Yes, they was havin’ them some church, indeed! And your article truly helped me to share in their joy. Thank you, Father!

  3. Many words go up but our thoughts are left behind. Pray your prayer my Mother. Very simply I will join you. YES Lord! (fiat)

    1. I just re-read this post and realize why the Claude Newman story brought it back to mind. The post asks, “How do you see it?” This story is one of the many ways I see the Canticle of Mary echo throughout the ages. The Miraculous Medal was given to us in 1830. Claude Newman received it in1945. His story inspired an Icon copyrighted in 2004. Mary’s presence in this story is generational and I hope still not over:

      From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name…..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 for ever.

  4. Msgr. Pope,
    I very much enjoy your work and the insights that you provide. But I have a question; in my studies there is the strong supposition that Mary herself did not proclaim the Magnificat, rather Luke used the song of Hannah and a Maccabean victory song, to name two, as models of sorts from which to construct a proclamation which he “put into the mouth of Mary,” e.g. it never really happened but was a literary device employed to make a theological point. Time permitting, I would appreciate your comments and any good references that you might suggest. Have a blessed and holy Christmas.

    1. Well as you point out, there is little time for lots of references. And as for your specific question I must also claim I am not a theologian or even a degreed Scripture Scholar for that matter.

      But my view on the point of view you wonder about is that it is rather typical of the deconstructionist attitude to Scripture all too common in the modern age. I don’t know why we are supposed to simply set aside Luke’s clear statement “And Mary Said…” just because some modern scholars are skeptical that she said it.

      Further, that Mary draws largely on Hannah’s song and other sources we seem rather to confirm that she, a young Jewish woman, knew her scriptures. The ancient Jews knew their scriptures and heard them and experienced them in the family, the culture and the synagogue from their earliest years. It is much like me, who, when I pray aloud for occasions, draw heavily on Biblical phrases from the psalms and the like. I am immersed in them and they are the way I think. This seems a more natural and human explanation for Mary’s words.

      That said, I realize that there wasn’t a tape recorder or a scribe present at the interaction of Mary with Elizabeth. Rather, I suppose what we have is the gist of the conversation, given by the Holy Spirit to Luke and also recounted by Mary herself either to Luke or to others in the Church.

      Pastorally I wonder what is gained by the “They never really said that” school. It has surely been damaging insofar as Jesus is concerned. I remember that some years ago the kids in the local High School got a steady diet of this from their religion teacher. And that was all they needed to discredit the whole biblical tradition and the moral vision. If I spoke of a moral or doctrinal teaching all they needed to do to disconnect and ignore it was to say, “Oh Jesus never really said that.” Not only did they skip free from the moral or doctrinal point, but they actually felt superior and enlightened in doing it. A pastoral disaster based on theories riddled with questionable presumptions.

      1. Msgr. Pope,
        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my query. I must admit to moving 180 degrees on the ‘deconstructionist’ take of Scripture due in large part to many of my Benedictine brethren and turning to such sources as Dr. Scott Hahn, Fr. Thomas Acklin (a confrere), Dr. Michel Therrien of St. Vincent Seminary and Fr. Robert Barron, to name but a few. You are quite right in pointing out the deficiencies of the presuppositions that undergird this particular approach and the consequences pastorally. Again, thank you for your response, it is helpful to ‘accumulate’ as it were, voices of clarity.

          1. to construct a proclamation which he “put into the mouth of Mary,” e.g. it never really happened

            In other words, Luke lied. He dishonestly said that something that never really happened did happen.

            I wonder what is gained by the “They never really said that” school

            What is gained is distrust, if not rejection, of the Bible as being in anyway factual or historical. What is gained is doubt and distrust of the Faith as a whole.

            If events that are depicted in the Bible as clearly historical (as opposed to those intended to be metaphorical or embellishment, which would include certain parts of the OT, but probably none of the NT except for Revelation) are shown to be completely made up, then the Bible itself is shown to be entirely a work of fiction. And that means that scripture was not inspired by the Holy Spirit, if not showing that the Holy Spirit is also a fictional concept.

            At some point, scripture becomes a matter of faith — either you believe it is true or you don’t. Although certainly a question of reason, the historicity of many specific events in scripture, like God Himself, is not susceptible of scientific testing.

  5. Yes. Ifound it hard pretty early since my family could be considered a little wealthy and it kind of was “against” us. I have worked hard to accept it and am beginning to love it, especially now as I grow to see the works of the rich and proud -i.e. some wealthy republicans. I was reading St.Frances de Sales and in it he said “the meaness of Mary in the context of loving your own abnegation and have been trying to figure out what that means but this passage comes close to “meanness”. However, I have to think the translation is off and he means something else. What do you think the “meanness” means? It really doesn’t seem mean when you understand the coldness of the rich and proud and it really is a help to them to repent. Anyway, the biggest lesson is that we need to love our abnegation (who ever talks about this?) to glorify God.

    1. Only wealthy republicans? 🙂

      The issue of being “rich” in the scriptures is a euphemism for being worldly and proud. Otherwise we would have to set a $ figure and someone might ask, “I make $75 K a year, am I rich or poor. Jesus and his company had wealthy friends (e.g. Martha and Mary seem to have been so). Further we are told that some wealthy women assisted the Lord and the apostles out of their means. Hence, for the rich, there is the call and the possibility of generosity and, as economic leaders to provide employment opportunities to others.

      There is, surely, more of a tendency for the rich to fall prey to pride and self reliance. Further they are more prone to injustice since they have it in their means to help and can thus be judged according to that. So their temptations are many. But simply being wealthy is not a sin and the wealthy are not evil as a class. They do have greater responsibilities in some areas however and having deeper roots in this world is a problem for them, since, in effect they have a lot to lose. But not all rich have this problem and further, not all poor are free of it.

      Interesting too how many of us speak of the “rich” as that other guy. Fact is, for us who live in America, just about all of us are rich, compared to many other regions. At some level I am rich, it’s not always that other guy who earns a buck more an hour than I do.

  6. Monsignor, I have been using the Magnificat (the publication of the Dominicans) for many years. I too recite the Magnificat prayer each evening and it is an “edgy prayer.” I think your categorization is straight on. And yet, it is a prayer that while seeming to be boastful, is indeed glowing with pride in the Lord and His incredible wonders.

    The Magnificat magazine often recites the Canticle of Hannah as a counterpoint. In fact, that prayer is far more boastful and somewhat forceful or even a bit vengeful. It is a counterpoint to Mary’s feeling of exultation.

    As a Jewish woman who had heard the Scriptures read often, Mary must have known of the Canticle of Hannah and perhaps used it as a baseline to express her joy. However, her joy was far more incredible in comparison to Hannah’s. Mary was, after all, to be the Mother of God and had the joy of knowing that but also would later realize the cross that this would bring her in sharing the work of her Son (the words of Simeon at her Purification).

    I like your dissection of this prayer. It is glorious and filled with much to contemplate. It is perfect!

    Wishing you a Blessed Christmas! D.v.

  7. In response to Chris-“What do you think ‘meanness’ really means?” The adjective ‘mean’ can be defined as ‘nasty, unkind’ or ‘poor, as living in poverty’. There are references throughout literature and history to people living in ‘mean circumstances’. I think that is the interpretation in this case.

  8. Thanks so much Msgr. I will never be able to recite Vespers the same again -which is a good thing since I find myself after many years just sometimes saying this prayer from memory with no heart in it.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. I love the Magnificat by J. S. Bach. I have heard it criticized as being too masculine, but I think it is exactly right. One of the Old Testament women who prefigured the Holy Virgin was Judith. Judith is described as beautiful. She certainly was not arrogant, but she definitely was a warrior woman. She decapitated Holofernes. Mary is *the* warrior woman who crushes the head of evil beneath her heel. This is a very beautiful piece. Thank you.

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