Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, a day in which the Church honors Mary’s role as the mother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For reflection on this feast day, we will examine the Magnificat – the first words recorded in Scripture of Mary as a mother (Lk 1:46-55).
The Magnificat is the inspired canticle, or hymn, that Mary proclaimed after she arrived at her cousin Elizabeth’s home and heard her greeting: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). We know the canticle was inspired for several reasons. Mary was a devout Jewish woman who was steeped in Scripture and prayer, the Holy Spirit had just descended upon her to conceive Jesus in her womb, and Elizabeth had been filled with the Holy Spirit in that moment (Lk 1:41). There was nothing worldly whatsoever between the two women, only God and His super-abundant grace. Mary’s song was a prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and joy and has since held a privileged place in the prayer of Mother Church, included even in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Notice that Elizabeth’s greeting emphasizes that she did not feel worthy that the mother of Jesus should visit her, thereby exalting Mary’s status of holiness and cooperation in these salvific events. However, Mary’s immediate response was to declare that all that she is and does, her entire being, is only to magnify God in His greatness, diminishing and humbling herself. Think forward to what Elizabeth’s own son, John the Baptist, says later, “He must increase; I must decrease,” (John 3:30). We also know that this was a standard disposition of Mary, as we see in her dialogue with the Angel Gabriel, that despite being troubled and uncertain about God’s plan, she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word,” (Lk 1:38). Think of your own life. Despite your uncertainty and your lack of understanding about what God is doing in your life, is your disposition such that you are willing to set aside your own will in all things, in order to be subject to His will alone, so that by your life, you magnify the greatness of the Lord?
The Magnificat is also, quite notably, the prayer that bridges the gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In this very moment, the Old Covenant draws to a close as the New Covenant comes into fruition. Mary’s song echoes the canticle of Hannah, who proclaimed, “My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in your salvation,” when she presented her son, Samuel in the house of the Lord (1 Sam 2:1). Mary also referenced Psalm 35:9, which states, “Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his salvation.” She does not have to look these verses up, as these joyful words of praise for God’s plan of salvation are already on her lips as she sings, with her heart soaring to heaven because of the goodness of His plan. So, we see her immediately refer to these Old Testament realities as she then proceeds to the future reality, “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is his name,” (Lk 1:48).
In proclaiming that, all generations will call her blessed, Mary is not placing herself on a pedestal, rather her inspired words are revealing that it is precisely because of her humility, her virtue, her willingness to abandon herself to God’s holy will, and her desire to magnify the Lord by her life, that she will become the most blessed woman in human history. God selected her to be the mother of His Son because of these very reasons. The mother of Jesus necessarily could not have been a prideful woman, subject to imposing her own will, or there would have existed conflict between her own worldly desires and the saving mission of her Son. Mary’s role is to direct all people to her Son, as revealed in John 2:5 when she said, “Do whatever he tells you.” Thus, she had to be the humblest of creatures, which could have only come about by the grace of God alone in her Immaculate Conception. It then naturally follows, that as the person most worthy to carry the Savior of the World, she would then be called the most blessed for all generations to come, because what greater blessing could there be for a person than to be the mother of God? Even the very statement that all generations will call this meek and humble woman blessed is a magnification of the goodness of God.
Following these opening verses, Mary turned the attention from the great things God has done for her personally and sang the rest of her canticle gratefully describing the myriad of ways He has shown His mercy and abundant blessings to the whole world: scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing the mighty down from their thrones, exalting the humble, feeding the hungry while sending the rich away empty. Again, being deeply steeped in Scripture, Mary could immediately recall instances where God had been merciful to those who love Him, like saving Noah and his family from the flood, saving the Hebrews from the slavery of Pharaoh, providing them with manna in the desert, and eventually leading them to the Promised Land, despite their persistence in petulance and sin. She also would have known of God’s promise to remedy the sin that Adam and Eve introduced to humankind in the Garden of Eden, by bringing about a Savior, whom she was carrying in her own womb at that exact moment (Gen 3:15).
In our world today, it can be tempting to grow discouraged as we may not see God raise up the meek and humble while the proud and the strong seem to keep their place. After all, we live in a fallen world. In our current culture, we see some of the least virtuous people held in the greatest esteem and holding positions of power and influence. The poorest among us tend to be the most downtrodden and ignored and the humblest of people are mischaracterized as weak. So, in this context, Mary’s words praising God’s goodness can seem frustrating. However, we must understand that the fullness of God’s plan is not necessarily always fulfilled on this Earth, in our own time. Consider the Beatitudes when Jesus preached that those most meek, humble, poor in spirit, and persecuted will be the ones to be the most exalted in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mat 5:1-12). We must remember that all of God’s promises will absolutely be fulfilled in the eternal sense, which Mary most certainly understood.
That is why my faith in Heaven and Hell is strengthened when I read the Magnificat, and I am assured of what God eventually does. Heaven is the glorification of humility, and hell is the humiliation of pride. Thank God that Heaven and Hell are both real.
-Servant of God, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
This week, reflect on the depth of meaning contained within this Canticle of Mary. What does it mean for your own life? Consider committing the Magnificat to memory, or at least always carrying it with you. Pray it often, as the Church does in her liturgy. Strive to be like Mary, magnifying the Lord by your life, trusting that, in your virtue, you will be rewarded in this life and the life to come.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.
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