Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
"My soul magnifies
the Lord, and my
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit
rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the
lowliness of his servant" (Luke 1:46b-47; NRSV).
In this exultant verse from the opening chapter
of Luke's Gospel, Mary joyfully responds to God's favoring her.
And through Mary, God honors us, as all "those who fear him from
generation to generation" (Luke 1:50).
The title "Magnificat" derives from the opening
line of the Latin Vulgate's translation: "Magnificat anima
mea Dominum," which means "my soul magnifies the Lord." In
this issue of Scripture From Scratch we will look at this
magnificent canticle of thanksgiving and liberation through three
different metaphors: as a tapestry; as a song; as a journey.
Mary's Magnificat as a Tapestry
Mary's Magnificat is an appealing tapestry. The
intertwining threads of warp and woof are spun from the the people
and narratives of God's workings within both ancient Israel and
Luke's faith community.
The warp, the set of yarns placed lengthwise in
the loom, are the stories and songs of the Hebrew Scriptures,
which inform Mary's psalm of rejoicing. The woof, the threads
crossing horizontally and interweaving with the warp, are the
lived experiences and piety of the humble "Poor Ones." For Luke,
these were the members of a Greek-speaking circle of Jewish-Christian
house-churches in the last third (70's and 80's) of the first
A number of texts and events throughout the Hebrew
Scriptures provide the basis for Mary's Magnificat, and interweave
the narrative of Israel with the narrative of Jesus. Scriptural
echoes from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings complement
the main allusions to Hannah's "magnificat of rejoicing" in l
The woof of Mary's tapestry, celebrating God's creative
ongoing inbreaking, are the daily struggles of Luke's people of
faith. These people can be called the anawim, a Hebrew
word used in the Old Testament to refer to the humble "Poor Ones,"
those who stayed faithful to God in difficult times. For Luke,
Mary represents these anawim in his community and throughout
the ages. In her Magnificat she sings of the freeing joy of God's
redeeming activities in the midst of their struggles in the world.
But even more than a simple interweaving of warp
and woof, Mary's Magnificat is a new woven fabric with an organic
integrity of insight. Her tapestry's strands incorporate threads
of ancient Israel's spirituality with the piety of Mary's contemporaries.
This single rich tapestry is woven by the same liberating God"the
Mighty One" of Israel and of Mary, the Messiah of the Christian
This God consistently exhibits divine faithfulness
and mercy in times past, through present crises and to all "those
who fear him from generation to generation" (Luke 1:50). The powerful
and enduring impact of Mary's Magnificat is generated by the interweaving
between the formative and decisive events of ancient Israel's
traditions and the transforming and defining endeavors of Luke's
Jewish-Christian "Poor Ones." In a profound way, the synthesis
was crafted in human endeavors well before our literary tapestry!
Mary's Magnificat as a Song
Mary's Magnificat, celebrated only in Luke's Gospel,
is one of four hymns, distilled from a collection of early Jewish-Christian
canticles, which complement the promise/fulfillment theme of Luke's
infancy narrative. These songs are Mary's Magnificat; Zechariah's
Benedictus (1:67-79); the angels' Gloria in Excelsis (2:13-14);
and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32). In form and content, these
four psalms are patterned on the "hymns of praise" in Israel's
Psalter. In structure, these songs reflect the compositions of
pre-Christian contemporary Jewish hymnology.
These songs reverberate with the salvation history
of ancient Israel. They are a medley of biblical imagery reconfigured
into a new expression of exultant thanksgiving. These four Lucan
canticles sing of God's positive life-transforming reversals in
Mary's life and the lives of her contemporaries.
Mary's lyrical song of rejoicing is basically composed
of four unified stanzas: (1) introductory praise of God (1:46b-47}
; (2) first strophe highlighting God's saving deeds toward Mary
(1:48-50); (3) second strophe emphasizing God's saving deeds toward
Israel (1:51-53} ;(4) concluding reflections on covenant mercy
and faithfulness (1:54-55).
The first stanza displays graphically a characteristic
feature of Hebrew poetrysynonymous parallelismin ascribing
praise to God: "my soul" mirrors "my spirit"; "proclaims the greatness"
with "has found gladness"; "of the Lord" with "in God my Savior."
The gentle balance of the opening two lines bursts out into a
dual magnificat of declaring the greatness of and finding delight
The second stanza of six lines then follows, enumerating
the motivations for this preceding ecstasy. Verses 48 and 49 both
begin with the Greek conjunction hoti, translated as "because/for,"
which announces the twofold reasons for the introductory exultation:
namely, "because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid"
and "because He who is mighty has done great things for me."
Next, verses 49-50 extol three characteristic attributes
of this praised God: God's might, God's holiness and God's mercy.
Mercy has been suggested as the key concept within this song of
reversals, since mercy reveals the compassionate presence of God
toward thoseboth ancient and contemporarywho are in
travail. God's mercy is a free giftunmerited "on those who
fear Him" and unending "from generation to generation."
The third stanza of six lines contains a unique
feature in the original Greek: all six verbs are in what grammarians
refer to as the aorist tense. One way of understanding this verb
tense is in terms of an inaugurated future, where the effective
results of Christ's advent have already been achieved. God's great
deeds exhibited toward God's chosen people of oldHe has
shown/has scattered/ has put down/has exalted/has filled/has sent
awayare now displayed in a new manner in the conception
of the child to be born to Mary.
Within this third stanza we again see parallelism,
but in this instance we have a triad of contrasting parallels.
The proud are reversed by the low estate (a moral comparison);
the mighty by those of low degree (a social comparison); the rich
by the hungry (an economic comparison). The future-anticipating
introduction of these crucial themes is played out fully within
the larger Lucan portrait of the message, mission and ministry
of Jesus. The best place to see an example of this is in Luke's
four beatitudes and four curses (Luke 6:20-26).
Finally the fourth stanza is like a musical coda
declaring God's covenant mercy and faithfulness. Mary extols God
for abiding fidelity within the context of the first covenant
with Abraham and all future covenant(s). Though Israel would encounter
crisis moments within their wanderings, God would comfort them
with the promise of a Messiah. "His servant Israel" has rich connotations
and multilayered associations, for example, "You, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen..., You are my servant, I have chosen
you and not cast you off" (Isaiah 41:8-9). The prophesied Davidic
heir yet to be born is another instance of God's coming to the
assistance of Chosen Israel. In this Lucan context, Jesus' conception
is the definitive inbreaking of God on behalf of God's covenant
Although there is some scholarly discussion of whether
the historical Mary herself actually proclaimed this canticle,
Luke portrays her as the singer of this song of reversals and
the interpreter of the contemporary events taking place. Mary
symbolizes both ancient Israel and the Lucan faith-community as
the author/singer of the Magnificat. Thereby Mary becomes interpreter
of Israel's salvation history and prophetic teacher of liberation
theology and social justice for all future generations.
Mary's Magnificat as Journey
Mary's Magnificat is most profoundly a journey.
Mary's exultation of mercy is most radically the disciple's justice-seeking
This canticle might be called biblical theology
in motion, conveying the whole majestic sweep of Judaeo-Christian
faith from Abraham and Sarah through Mary's graced time and our
own, and toward the end of time.
The Magnificat is a revolutionary document of passionate
conflict and vindication, calling all believers to a journey of
solidarity with all oppressed peoples. Mary's song is the great
New Testament canticle of liberation, praising a God who not only
promised to dwell with those who suffer, but more importantly
has been faithful to those sustaining promises.
Mary's vocation is our vocation. Mary teaches us
courage and solidarity in all liberating strife. Mary lifts up
the small horizon of our sighted vision to the abundant insight
of her boundary-breaking Son.
This shared pilgrimage of Mary's Magnificat is a
journey of prophetic discipleship-witness. Indeed in Luke's developed
painting, Mary transforms resplendently from her role as a natural
mother (in the birthing and nursing of Jesus on the biological
level), to the Lucan example par excellence of a true disciple
(in hearing and obeying the word of God).
"While he [Jesus] was saying this, a woman in the
crowd raised her voice and said to him, 'Blessed is the womb that
bore you and the breasts that nursed you!' But he said, 'Blessed
rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!'" (Luke
Therefore the Catechism of the Catholic Church
can rightly conclude:
"That is why the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat
(Latin) or Megalynei (Byzantine) is the song both of the Mother
of God and of the Church; the song of the Daughter of Zion and
of the new People of God; the song of thanksgiving for the fullness
of graces poured out in the economy of salvation and the song
of the 'poor' whose hope is met by the fulfillment of the promises
made to our ancestors, 'to Abraham and to his posterity for ever'"
Next: Gnosticism and the Canon (by Elizabeth