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Singing at the Threshold of Elizabeth’s Home: Mary’s Magnificat

by | May 29, 2016 | Formation, Reflections

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In his reflection on Mary and her role in God’s economy of mercy, Pope Francis pauses with Mary at the threshold of Elizabeth’s home.  He writes in MV #24:

Chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, Mary, from the outset, was prepared by the love of God to be the Ark of the Covenant between God and man. She treasured divine mercy in her heart in perfect harmony with her Son Jesus. Her hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from “generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). We too were included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary. This will be a source of comfort and strength to us as we cross the threshold of the Holy Year to experience the fruits of divine mercy.

In meditating on this “hymn of praise” the overall context is of some significance and its placement early in the Gospel of Luke is hardly accidental.  Furthermore, that the hymn is sung not in the temple precincts but in a domestic space, namely the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, is also important.  One scripture scholar has pointed out that this is the only New Testament story in which two identifiable women actually have a conversation with one another.  This could, as is sometimes said, “Spell trouble.”  There may, in fact, be more than a little irony here: while Elizabeth and Mary are speaking with one another and God, Zechariah is struck mute.  (Zechariah is struck mute from Luke 1:20 to 1:64.  The “visitation” of Mary to Elizabeth and their conversation, including the Magnificat, is sandwiched between those verses.)

One of the real difficulties with Mary’s Magnificat revolves around its multiple, and sometimes openly conflicting, interpretations.  Some writers interpret the song through the lens of Mary’s humility (and sometimes even humiliation) as well as the humility of women in general; others interpret the Magnificat as inaugurating a revolution of sorts.  Rene Coste, for instance wrote a little work entitling the Magnificat precisely that – “the revolution of God.”  Elizabeth Johnson in Dangerous Memories entitles the chapter in which she explores the Magnificat, “Visitation – Joy in the Revolution of God.”  Rather than entertaining a kind of happy hodge-podge which attempts to blend all these interpretations and themes harmoniously, it might be more honest simply to suggest that where one stands (for instance, ideologically, economically, and socially) will, no doubt, shape one’s interpretation of the text.  One suspects that people who marginal may pray and sing this hymn with a different frame of reference than those comfortably within the margins.  Still, it seems to be the case that the song is open to multiple interpretations that can include both humility and revolution, joy and possibly frustration (though pushing one or the other too far or in too ideologically-bent fashion might mangle the hymn causing one to sing, so to speak, “off key.’  To borrow a felicitous phrase from the title of one of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann’s books, perhaps the hymn is a song/psalm of praise on the lips of one woman in the name of all Israel’s Anawim (poor ones), a doxological cry against both idolatry and partisan ideology.

This being noted, what can one most likely say concerning the Magnificat?  Or minimally, what have some biblical scholars said about the Magnificat?  A number of questions arise which we will not chase here: What kind of poem is this? Is Mary the composer and the speaker of the poem, or was it the composition of the early church placed on the lips of Mary by Luke?  Arguments proposing various answers to these questions have been put forward.  What does seem rather probable, however, is that the hymn is akin to the hymn of Hannah, the mother of Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

What also seems rather important is that the hymn is found only in Luke’s Gospel, and in many ways encapsulates and/or recapitulates many of the themes emphasized in that same Gospel.  That the hymn is sung by a woman is a typically Lucan concern, the sort of detail Luke would emphasize.  Furthermore, while all three synoptic gospels certainly focus on Jesus’ ministry among those who were on the margins (or even outside the margins), Luke’s Gospel seems to give strong accent to the theme.

In a certain sense, Mary articulates nothing new in this hymn of praise.  The hymn consists of a weaving together of a number of themes and actual quotations from the Hebrew Bible concerning the poor.  It might be helpful to recall the words:

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;

behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

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.

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.

He has helped Israel his servant,

remembering his mercy,

according to his promise to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:46-56

A number of scholars refer to Luke’s Gospel as the “gospel of reversals.”  Think, for example, of Luke’s parables – Lazarus and the rich person (Luke 16: 19-31); the guests invited to the banquet (Luke 14:7-11).  Consider also the form of Luke’s Beatitudes where there are both “blessed/happy” ones and those who will experience “woe.”  In many respects Mary’s hymn of praise is prophetic speech (Pope Francis mentions this in the quite above) in which this world of reversals, this upside down world, is clearly envisioned and articulated, prophesied if you like.  One might even suggest that the world as envisioned and articulated in Mary’s Magnificat is a foretaste and microcosm of the reign of God as envisioned by the Lucan Jesus.  To use a phrase from the small volume (mentioned earlier) by Elizabeth Johnson on Mary in the scriptures, the world envisioned by Mary’s Magnificat is a mosaic of “dangerous memories.”  This is not to engage in partisan politics but it is to suggest that the gospel implicates one in the political and economic spheres.   If, as has been said, the “Our Father” sums up the gospels in which it appears, one might also suggest that Mary’s Magnificat sums up Luke’s Gospel.

Those who pray the Liturgy of Hours regularly know this prayer/hymn by heart.  It is part of Evening Prayer and one prays it standing.  In a sense it is the “gospel” at every Evening Prayer and as we generally stand the Gospel at Eucharist, so we stand for the Magnificat.  Vincent de Paul sometimes spoke of the poor as our “Masters.  Despite the somewhat time-conditioned image involved (‘masters”), the point remains well-taken.  One stands in the presence of Masters.  Perhaps we would do well to remember that when we pray or sing the Magnificat we stand in the presence of the poor, with them and among them.

One final thought: It has been pointed out that in the midst of the dictatorship that plagued Guatemala during the 1980s, the public praying and reading of the Magnificat was forbidden; it was considered a threat to the state and possible catalyst for revolution.  No wonder.

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