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Mary's Magnificat
"My soul magnifies
the Lord, and my
spirit rejoices"

by Daniel W. Casey

"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 century A.D.

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 Samuel 2:1-10.

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 community.

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 poetry—synonymous parallelism—in 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 in God.

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 those—both ancient and contemporary—who are in travail. God's mercy is a free gift—unmerited "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 old—He has shown/has scattered/ has put down/has exalted/has filled/has sent away—are 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 people.

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 pilgrimage.

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 11:27-28).

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'" (#2619).

Daniel W. Casey, Jr., is Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Biblical Archaeology for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. He has excavated at three key Galilean sites: Megiddo, Bethsaida Julias and the Nazareth Village Farm. In Spring 1998 he was Scholar-in-Residence at Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the Way to Bethlehem.

Next: Gnosticism and the Canon (by Elizabeth McNamer)


Living the Scriptures  

Luke's artistic techniques are reminiscent of an old photograph in your family album that has been doubly exposed, whereby one grouping of figures is viewed through another set. How do you identify with any of the qualities and contours of either the underlying Hebrew personages or the overlying characters of the Lucan infancy narrative?



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