March 24, 2010
CNS/courtesy Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
The Canticle of Mary (The Magnificat)
by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Mary’s sublime prayer, the “Magnificat,” takes its name from
the first word of the Latin translation of this song of praise. This explains
why one sometimes runs into the translation: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary’s Canticle is reminiscent of the hymn of
praise which the Old Testament figure Hannah sang to the Lord after her state
of childlessness was mercifully removed by God. Hannah, we know, joyfully bore
her son Samuel, whom she dedicated to the Lord and who became a great prophet.
In her song, Hanna proclaims, “My heart exults in the Lord” (I Samuel 2:1) and in
a later line she rejoices that the lord “raises the needy from the dust” (2:8).
We see similar elements in Mary’s song of praise.
We ask the Spirit of God to enlighten our minds and
hearts as we reflect on the lines of this great song which flow from the lips
of Mary. The translation used here for Mary’s Canticle (see Luke 1:46-55) is from
the New American Bible.
Proclaiming God's Greatness
My soul proclaims the
greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
We find the context for Mary’s song a few verses earlier in
Luke’s Gospel: The angel Gabriel has
just told Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, Jesus, who will be called
“Son of the Most High.” He will be given “the throne of David his father and…of
his kingdom there will be no end.” Such glorious pronouncements did not cause
Mary to swell with self-centered pride. Her heart was filled instead with
worries and concerns. And yet she fully trusted “the Holy Spirit,” who came
upon her, as well as the “power of the Most High,” who overshadowed her (see
Although Mary had a profound sense of the goodness and “greatness
of the Lord,” she stayed in touch with her humble, finite and frail humanity and
creaturehood. Finally, Mary simply affirmed: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the
Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38). Her spirit rejoiced,
not in her own strength, but in the power of God’s saving love.
The Source of Our Salvation
For he has looked
upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
Behold, from now on will all ages call me
The Mighty One has
done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age
to age to those who fear him.
Mary understands, profoundly, where her salvation is coming
from—not from her virtue but from God’s overflowing goodness. If in the
future all nations come to call her blessed, Mary knows, in all humility, that it
is because of what the Mighty One has done for her, and not what she has done.
In truth, all ages down the centuries have called her “blessed” and millions do
so today each time they pray the Hail Mary. But the Mother of Jesus surely understands
well the words of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in
vain who build it. Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the guard keep
God's Mighty Reversals
He has shown might
with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down
the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has
filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
As was already noted in Hannah’s hymn of praise, the Lord
“raises the needy from the dust.” So also in Mary’s Canticle, we see God
lifting “up the lowly” and throwing “down the rulers from their thrones.” We
see the same kind of reversals in Luke’s Gospel as a whole. Consider for
example, Luke’s series of blessings and woes in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke
6: 20-26): “Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry” (6:25). Or
consider Luke 14:11: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one
who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Surely, Mary would have somehow
experienced these reversals in her son—his scourging, crucifixion and death on
the one hand—and his resurrection and his appearances to his disciples in
glory, on the other. She would understand, moreover, the dynamics of St. Paul’s letter to the
Philippians (2:8-9) where Paul speaks of Christ’s own humbling, as well as
humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death
on a cross. Because of
this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him a name that is above every
No doubt, Mary was already wrestling with these mysteries when
she sang her Canticle—as well as decades later at the time of Jesus’ suffering
and death. And soon after, she would have known, of course, about his
exaltation and rising into glory. More than this, she would know that the dual mysteries
of humiliation and exaltation would still be significant challenges even later
in the life of Jesus’ disciples and in his Body, the Church. In fact these are the
struggles which all humans still deal with today.
God's Promise Fulfilled
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
According to his
promises to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
My reflections on Mary’s Canticle began with the observation
that Mary’s psalm of praise was similar to that which Hannah sang after she bore
her son Samuel. Samuel, of course, was the great prophet who anointed both Saul
(I Samuel 10:1) and David (16:13). The Prophet Samuel was thus a key figure in
establishing the Davidic dynasty, which Jesus, the son of Mary, would become
part of centuries later. When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Luke’s
Gospel and told her she would give birth to Jesus, the angel said, “[He] will
be called Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of
David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32).
Luke indicates that Jesus is a successor or descendant of
David through Joseph, Mary’s husband. Luke does this in his genealogy of Jesus
in which he says, “[Jesus] was the son, as was thought, of Joseph…” (See Luke 3:23).
The Lucan genealogy also indicates that Jesus was a descendant of David (3:31)
and of Abraham (3:34)—and it goes all the way back to “Adam, son of God”
Mary ends her Canticle with a sharp focus on Abraham, her
father in faith—and the father in faith of all God’s people. Abraham
represents the beginnings of the story of Israel—a story which continues in
Jesus Christ and his followers. A footnote at the beginning of St. Matthew’s
Gospel (New American Bible) identifies “the coming of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s
history.” Interestingly, Matthew identifies Jesus Christ as “the son of David,
the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). We go back now to Genesis and take a closer
look at the Lord’s call of Abraham: God said to Abram: “Go forth from the land
of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I
will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1-2). As God
later tells Abraham, “I will…make your descendants as countless as the stars of
the sky and the sands of the seashore; …and in your descendants [especially in
the son of Mary], all the nations of the earth shall find blessing…”
The greatness of Mary’s Canticle is that it embraces the
whole sweep of the story of Israel and that of the Incarnate Word—and the whole sweep of Mary’s trust and
complete openness to God. We are blessed in contemplating the words of Mary’s amazing
Readers respond to Friar Jim Van Vurst's March E-spiration, Catechism Quiz: Lent and Forgiveness
Dear Marco: You are right on target regarding the motivation and the reason why (a)
Jesus wants us to do it and (b) it is the right thing to do. Fr. Jim
Name withheld: I can tell you that this
woman is "God's
gift" to you even though she seems so ungrateful. Now you know what Jesus experienced at times in
rejected by the people he worked so hard to help. You
blessed, and I don't say that lightly. Every time she says something hurtful or frustrating, say
your heart, "Thank you, Lord, for this gift." You are Jesus sitting by her
side, his instrument for this sick and lonely person.God bless you. Friar Jim
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