Chances are, 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This is a fact worth reconsidering on May 31, the traditional feast of the Visitation (although this year it's superseded by the Solemnity of Pentecost).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 through it."
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 Christian."
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