My soul magnifies the Lord
Luke’s grand and sweeping story of the birth of the Messiah embraces the lives of so many ordinary people, and the scene of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth is one such scene. Both women had good reason to be very preoccupied with their pregnancies and all that new life brings. Both women had a right to focus on themselves for a while as they made new and radical adjustments to their daily lives. Mary reaches out to her kinswoman to help her and also to be helped by her.
Mary’s exultant hymn, the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55, has been part of the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours at Vespers (evening prayer) and has been repeated nightly in churches, convents, monasteries, and religious communities for more than a thousand years. So many laypersons have made this prayer their own as they, too, offer the Prayer of the Church each day. What is the background of this magnificent prayer in the New Testament? The Virgin of Nazareth pays a visit to her kinswoman, Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judah. For the occasion, Luke places on Mary’s lips an Old Testament prayer of Hannah, mother of the great prophet, Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
In many ways Mary, “the handmaid of the Lord” is patterned on Hannah, the handmaid, who, of all Old Testament mothers, is the great role model of maternal devotion and religious piety, dedicating her son entirely to the service of the Lord God in the temple, and there rejoicing over her son’s birth with a great hymn of praise. Much of the thought and even the language of Hannah’s song is taken up by Mary, the new Hannah, in the Magnificat. So now Mary becomes not merely the symbol of the faithful of Israel in general but the symbol of the faithful mother and disciple of the Lord. When Mary prays the Magnificat, she announces the economic, political, and social manifesto that will define her son’s kingdom and her place within this new, in-breaking reality.
The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio
There is really no specific connection of the Magnificat to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth (with the possible exception of v. 48). Even if not composed by Luke, it fits in well with themes found elsewhere in Luke: joy and exultation in the Lord; the lowly being singled out for God’s favour, the reversal of human fortunes, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises.
Mary proclaims that in the coming kingdom, “those of low degree” will be exalted and the hungry will be filled, while the arrogant, the powerful and the rich will be “sent away empty.” Mary celebrates the primacy of God and his grace, who chooses the last and the neglected, the “poor of the Lord,” of which the Old Testament speaks. This God overturns their fortune and introduces them as protagonists and actors in the history of salvation. From the moment that God looked upon her with love, Mary became the sign of hope for the mass of poor, of the least of the earth who become the first in the Kingdom of God.
Mary’s life can be summed up with four words that are found in the Gospels: “Fiat
,” in her response to the angel Gabriel; “Magnificat
,” as her response to God’s grace at work in her life; “Conservabat
,” as she cherished all these memories and events in her heart; and “Stabat
,” as she stood faithfully at the foot of the Cross, watched her Son die for humanity, and awaited the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus’ mission. God calls each one of us through Scripture in complete love and grace, and the response of the obedient mind is “fiat
”: let it be done to me according to your word. We, too, celebrate with our strength the relevance of the word to new personal and especially political situations: “magnificat
.” Then we ponder in the heart what we have seen and heard: “conservabat
.” But Scripture tells us that Mary, too, had to learn hard things: she wanted to control her Son, but she could not. Her soul is pierced with the sword, as she stands “stabat
” at the foot of the Cross.
We too must wait patiently, letting the written Word tell us things that may be unexpected or even unwelcome but which are yet salvific. We read humbly, trusting God and waiting to see his purpose unfold in our lives and in the world.
Mary’s earthly life is a journey of faith, hope, and love, an exemplary way of holiness which began with the enthusiasm of her “fiat
”, the exultation of the Magnificat, contemplative reflection in everyday life, perseverance in the dark night of the Passion until she could share in the joy of her divine Son in the radiant dawn of Resurrection. What happens to the Virgin daughter of Nazareth at the end of her earthly pilgrimage will happen to each one of us if we are faithful and obedient as she was.