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The Magnificat is much more than a gently joyful proclamation by a simple Jewish maiden. It’s a powerful acknowledgement of God’s might and what he can do for those who trust in him.
BY Marge Fenelon
when you picture the Visitation — the meeting of God-bearing Mary with her
cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist — your impression is not of an
especially bold or assertive exchange.
Mary's words in Luke 1:46-55, what
we now know as the Magnificat, are usually understood to convey the very
essence of meekness and docility.
But this prayer is much more than a
gently joyful proclamation by a simple Jewish maiden. It's a powerful
acknowledgement of God's might and what he can do for those who trust in him.
This is a fact worth reconsidering
on May 31, the traditional feast of the Visitation (although this year it's superseded
by the Solemnity of Pentecost).
The Magnificat's wording is so
"subversive" that the Guatemalan government banned its public recitation for a
time in the 1980s. That's according to Kathleen Norris, author of Meditations
on Mary (Viking Studio, 1999).
"These words echo the song of Hannah
in 1 Samuel, as well as the anguish of the prophets," she explains. "They are a
poetic rendering of a theme that pervades the entire biblical narrative: When
God comes into our midst, it is to upset the status quo."
In the Magnificat, the Blessed
Mother refers to the history of Israel as handed down through Scripture. It is
a history rife with war and bloodshed.
The Mighty One ... has shown might
with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the
rulers from their thrones ...
The Magnificat "speaks of God's
reversal of worldly powers," says Franciscan Father James Ciaramitaro,
parochial vicar at the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee. "As a result of
Our Lady's immaculate conception, the Annunciation, the Incarnation, and the
salvation Christ would bring, there's a reversal on a practical but also a
cosmic level. It's the beginning of God's restoration of the universe from the
effects of sin."
The Magnificat is the prayer of
anyone who has suffered from abuse, scandal, prejudice, oppression, economic
hardship or misunderstanding, adds the priest.
Given the moral and economic
conditions of society as a whole — and the effects of original sin on all
people — we might all find ourselves included in that group.
"It's Our Lady's canticle of
thanksgiving, of the fulfillment of God's promise," says Father Ciaramitaro.
"That's why we pray the Magnificat in the evening prayer of the Liturgy of the
Hours. We, too, have experienced God's goodness throughout our day and the
fulfillment of God's promise in our own lives."
The Scandal of Surprise
"The prayer is always close to my
lips, as I truly feel the glory of God and his goodness and mercy to me every
day," says Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMoms.com and a contributor at
FaithandFamilyLIVE.com, the Register's sister website. "Mary's canticle, the
Magnificat, reminds me that each day is a joyous opportunity to praise God for
the miracles he does in our world and in my life and to lovingly respond to his
call to serve him and others with the talents and abilities he has given me."
A similar sense of hope and
thanksgiving prompted the French founder of Magnificat,
Pierre-Marie Dumont, to name his magazine
after the canticle in 1992. In 1998, Magnificat began
publishing in English.
"Mary's Magnificat is the example
for how we should respond to God's call in our own lives," says Magnificat
spokesman Paul Snatchko. "Because of its richness, I suggest
meditating on it slowly and thoughtfully in order to see what God has to say
Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, author of The
Complete Idiot's Guide to Mary of Nazareth (Alpha Press, 2006), says
the Magnificat "proclaims the scandal of the Annunciation." And what is the
scandal? "That we believe in a mighty and powerful God who could do anything —
and who chose a simple, lowly woman as the vessel for his humanity as the means
through which his Son would be born into the human world."
"Truly," she adds, "there is no
greater sign of God's mercy and love for his people."
Power and Glory
It's the Magnificat's historicity
that most appeals to Meredith Gould, a convert from Judaism and author of Why
Is There a Menorah on the Altar? Jewish Roots of Christian Worship
(due to be released by Morehouse in the fall).
"Like everyone else in the known
universe," she says, "I love the opening words: 'My soul proclaims the
greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.' I love the
sweeping joy of it. But I'm also, and maybe even more, moved by the words 'He
has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to
Abraham and his children forever' because it recalls the Sinai Covenant, which
will never be revoked."
This fact, adds Gould, "provides
durable comfort to me as a convert from Judaism, especially when I struggle to
help my sisters and brothers in Christ realize our shared heritage in Judaism."
The Sinai Covenant, God's promise to
his people, was fulfilled in Mary. The Magnificat reflects Mary's realization
of this astounding fact.
Says Father Ciaramitaro: "Our Lady
is the Mother of the Church, the first disciple of her Son, and the model for
every Christian. In the very action of God in her life and the way she so
joyfully accepts it, she models what God wants to do in the life of every
So, in the Magnificat, does Mary
model docility? Undoubtedly. Meekness? Most assuredly.
But read between the lines, and
you'll see the power and the glory, too.
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.
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