Singing through Advent, Part Two: The Magnificat

The canticle of the Virgin of Nazareth has given rise to musical settings in Gregorian and Anglican chant and in countless polyphonic settings composed by some of the greatest artists in history.

Detail from "The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the 'Magnificat' in Latin" (c. 1412-16) by The Limbourg brothers (Wikipedia)

Some preliminary considerations

The context for Our Lady’s canticle of praise, overall, is the Gospel according to St. Luke and, more specifically, within his Infancy Narrative. Only Matthew and Luke offer a “pre-history” to the Lord’s public ministry, the purpose of which is to show that the One who demonstrated that he was (and is) the Lord of all through his victorious Passion, Death and Resurrection, was that from the very beginning of his earthly sojourn among men. St. Matthew presents his account from the perspective of St. Joseph, while St. Luke takes the perspective of the Blessed Virgin.

This canticle is a mosaic of several Old Testament passages, most notably the canticle of Hannah (1 Sm 2:1-10, used at Lauds of Week II in the Liturgy of the Hours).1 Some “de-mythologizers” from the German so-called Enlightenment era asserted (apodictically, even infallibly!) that Mary could not have composed a work of such theological complexity and literary polish. As the old Jewish lady was fond of saying to de-mythologizers of her acquaintance, “And you were there?” Or, put another way, “Just because you couldn’t do it, don’t suppose that Mary couldn’t!” Born into a devout Jewish family, Our Lady would have been saturated with Holy Scripture from childhood, so that verses of the Sacred Text would trip off her tongue quite naturally and easily. It’s alleged that St. John Henry Cardinal Newman had the entire Bible committed to memory by the age of thirteen. And, until the modern era of biblical illiteracy (and general illiteracy), people regularly let fall lines of Scripture as ways to seal discussions and arguments: “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” “He’s a Good Samaritan.” “He’s a Judas.” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You get the idea.

The Magnificat (which gets its name from its first word in Latin) is sung daily in the Liturgy of the Hours at Vespers in the Western liturgical tradition, while it finds its place at Matins in that of the East. Forming part of one’s daily spiritual diet, it can be taken for granted, or worse, familiarity can indeed breed contempt – in the sense of indifference. Our approach in this whole series of Advent reflections will be to “dissect” the text as a way of bringing about an appreciation for the whole, ultimately leading it back together again in an act of worship, whence it had its origins, especially as it finds its most satisfying expression in sacred song.

Luke presents us with a literary diptych of sorts as two heavenly announcements herald two miraculous births. The Angel Gabriel appears to the priest Zechariah as he is fulfilling his liturgical duties in the Temple, informing him that the decades-long hope of him and his wife for a child is to be fulfilled and, further, that this child will have a critical, prophetic role to play in the history of salvation. Six months later, Gabriel appears to the Virgin of Nazareth, informing her that she is to give birth to the One who will be called “Son of the Most High.” Both human recipients of these divine messages are awestruck, actually fear-struck, so that Gabriel reassures them with that recurring biblical admonition, “Fear not.”

Zechariah responds to the news with doubt, leading to the punishment of being struck dumb. Mary responds to the news with confusion (not doubt)2 since she is a virgin.3 Their offspring are both products of a divine intervention, but the one exceeds the other in excellence just as the faith of the one parent exceeds in excellence the faith of the other. Both parents sing forth prophecies (in the root meaning of the Greek, prophemi, to speak forth); interestingly, we are told that Zechariah receives a special impulse of the Holy Spirit to proclaim his hymn of praise, while Mary does so simply on her own, it would seem. How so? Having already been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit,4 she is thus fully a woman of the Spirit, the Spirit’s human agent.

It should be noted that the Angel begins his address to Mary with a title (not her name), “full of grace,”5 for thenceforth she shall have a role greater than her own person. She is given as evidence of the omnipotence of God the news that her elderly (past child-bearing age) kinswoman Elizabeth is pregnant, “For with God nothing is impossible.” Mary declares her willingness to serve as the human instrument to bring about the divine plan: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” and responds further with the word that changes the course of history6: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (Let it be done to me according to your word).7

“With haste,” St. Luke tells us, Mary embarks on a journey of evangelization and charity to Elizabeth: evangelization, to share the “good news” of her own miraculous pregnancy; charity, to assist her aged and equally pregnant relative. Elizabeth, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, shouts out her “macarism” (makarios, Greek for “blessed”): “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”8 And then, as we continue to eavesdrop on the conversation between the two mothers, we learn that there is yet another conversation going on: the one between the two babies in the womb, as the “fetus” John “leaps for joy,” sensing as he does the presence of the “fetus” Jesus – how moving and charming!9 Elizabeth utters yet another macarism: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” With that, Luke gives us the words of Our Lady for the first time during this visit, and it is precisely her canticle of praise, her Magnificat, found below in both Latin10 and English.

Magnificat (1:46-55):

Magnificat anima mea Dominum;
Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius,
Et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo;
Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel, puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae,
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

Exegesis of the Magnificat

As I begin my exegesis of this hymn, I wish to make my own the following statement of intention by another priest seeking to “explain” the Magnificat:

Now I do not know in all the Scriptures anything that so well serves such a purpose as this sacred hymn of the most blessed Mother of God. . . . Truly she sings in it most sweetly of the fear of God, what manner of lord He is, and especially what His dealings are with those of high and of low degree. . . . this pure Virgin well deserves to be heard. . . as she sings. . . her sacred, chaste and salutary song. It is a fine custom, too, that this canticle is sung in all the churches daily at Vespers, and to a particular and appropriate setting that distinguishes it from the other chants. May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom, profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers, so that . . . we all may draw therefrom wholesome knowledge and a praiseworthy life, and thus come to chant and sing this Magnificat eternally in heaven. To this may God help us. Amen.

Whose words have I made “my own”? St Augustine’s? No. St. Thomas Aquinas? No. St. Alphonsus Liguori? No. St. John Paul II? No. They are none other than those of Martin Luther as he launched into his 1521 Explanation of the Magnificat, dedicated to the Duke of Saxony – a full four years after nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the collegiate church of Wittenberg.11

So, now we are poised to delve into Our Lady’s canticle in that time-honored practice of lectio divina, the prayerful reflection on passages of Holy Writ.12

My soul magnifies the Lord

How can Mary – or any human being – “magnify the Lord”? God’s glory is absolute, not needing or benefitting from any human praise, that is, God’s intrinsic glory. However, in His extrinsic glory, God can be “magnified” in the sight of men. Origen says about this verse:

. . . if I consider that the Lord our Savior is the image of the invisible God, and that the soul is created according to His image, so as to be an image of an image, then I shall see plainly, that as after the manner of those who are accustomed to paint images, each one of us forming his soul after the image of Christ, makes it great or little, base or noble, after the likeness of the original so when I have made my soul great in thought, word, and deed, the image of God is made great, and the Lord Himself whose image it is, is magnified in my soul.

My spirit rejoices in God my Savior

The reader will recall that in our first installment, mention was made of the way St. Luke joins the presence of the Holy Spirit to holy joy. St. Basil reminds us that “the first-fruit of the Spirit is peace and joy,” bringing about within a believer “a certain bright and cheerful state of mind.” And Origen connects Mary’s faith to her joy: “. . . for unless we have first believed, we cannot rejoice.”

He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden

Mary proclaims her nothingness, thus situating herself in that long procession of the anawim, the lowly ones throughout salvation history who, by patient waiting and faithful living, paved the way for the Messiah. St. Augustine teaches us:

“O true lowliness, which has borne God to men, has given life to mortals, made new heavens and a pure earth, opened the gates of Paradise, and set free the souls of men. The lowliness of Mary was made the heavenly ladder, by which God descended upon earth.”

And Bede the Venerable adds:

“For it was fitting, that as by the pride of our first parent death came into the world, so by the lowliness of Mary should be opened the entrance into life.”

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed

Speaking of long processions, we Catholics count it a singular privilege to stand in line with millions of believers down the centuries who have fulfilled the Virgin’s prophetic utterance in calling her blessed. St. Augustine weighs in again: “For many seem in my sight to be lowly, but their lowliness is not regarded by the Lord. For if they were truly lowly, their spirit would rejoice not in the world, but in God.” And from Bede, once more: “But she, whose humility is regarded, is rightly called blessed by all; as it follows, For, behold, from henceforth all shall call me blessed.

For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Again, Our Lady shows herself to be a model of humility. She does not discount the wonder being worked in her, but refers it all to Almighty God. She likewise gives an example of observance of the Second Commandment of the Decalogue, where we are enjoined to revere the name of God, for one’s name – in the biblical view of things – is the equivalent of one’s person.

Titus of Bostra puts these words on the lips of the Blessed Mother: “But where are the great things, if they be not that I still a virgin conceive (by the will of God) overcoming nature. I have been accounted worthy, without being joined to a husband, to be made a mother, not a mother of anyone, but of the only-begotten Savior.” And Bede reminds us that “holy, signifies as it were to be ‘apart from the earth.’”

And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.

The Latin word for “mercy” is “misericordia,” literally meaning “having a heart for the miserable”; it seeks to translate the Hebrew “hesed,” the loving-kindness of our God. Having heard so much about mercy in the present pontificate, one could easily be lured into thinking that it comes cheaply. A Greek exegete quoted by St. Thomas in the Catena Aurea sets the record straight in this regard:

“Nor is His mercy shown indiscriminately, but upon those who are constrained by the fear of Him in every nation; as it is said, upon those who fear him, that is, upon those who being brought by repentance are turned to faith and renewal for the obstinate unbelievers have by their sin shut against themselves the gate of mercy.”

He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

St. Bede explains:

“In describing the state of mankind, she shows what the proud deserve, and what the humble; saying, He has shown strength with his arm, &c. i.e. with the very Son of God. For as your arm is that whereby you work, so the arm of God is said to be His word by whom He made the world.”

And from Cyril of Jerusalem:

“But these words may be more appropriately taken to refer to the hostile ranks of the evil spirits. For they were raging on the earth, when our Lord’s coming put them to flight, and restored those whom they had bound, to His obedience.”

He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.

Cyril continues his explanation:

“The mighty in knowledge were the evil spirits, the Devil, the wise ones of the Gentiles, the Scribes and Pharisees; yet these He has put down, and raised up those who humbled themselves under the mighty hand of God; giving them the power of treading upon serpents and scorpions and every power of the enemy. The Jews were also at one time puffed up with power, but unbelief slew them, and the mean and lowly of the Gentiles have through faith climbed up to the highest summit.”

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

In our age of crass materialism and rampant consumerism, we should hear in this verse a clarion call to exercise prudence in our use of the things of this world. Basil puts it this way:

“These words regulate our conduct even with respect to sensible things, teaching the uncertainty of all worldly possessions, which are as short-lived as the wave which is dashed about to and fro by the violence of the wind.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

God is faithful, even when we are unfaithful because, as St. Paul stressed to Timothy, God cannot deny Himself (see 2 Tim 2:13). God is Fidelity Personified. Through the long and winding road of God’s relations with the Chosen People – and their all-too-frequent infidelities – God remained faithful to them, and the proof positive of this is the coming of His Son in the flesh. Basil underscores this point:

“For by Israel she [Mary] means not Israel after the flesh, whom their own title made noble, but the spiritual Israel, which retained the name of faith, straining their eyes to see God by faith.”

Having come to the end of this jewel of theology and poetry,13 truly inspired in every sense of the word, St. Luke laconically notes:

“And Mary remained with her [Elizabeth] about three months, and returned to her home.”

However, that is not a “throw-away” line to provide an easy transition to the next event. Where else do we find the expression “for three months”? Take a look at the sixth chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, where David brings the ark to the holy city of Jerusalem; en route, the ark – before which David dances with abandon – has a “rest stop” in the home of Obed-edom, yes, for three months:

“And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.”

David dances before the ark, while the baby John (in the womb of Elizabeth) dances, “leaps for joy” before the Blessed Virgin, carrying the baby Jesus in her womb. And Mary remains with Elizabeth “for three months,” just like the sojourn of the Ark of the Covenant in the house of Obed-edom. Justly, then, has the Church, in the Litany of Loreto, accorded Mary the title of “Ark of the Covenant,” for she bore within herself a treasure far surpassing the contents of the ancient Ark.

——-

The canticle of the Virgin of Nazareth has given rise to musical settings in Gregorian and Anglican chant and in countless polyphonic settings composed by some of the greatest artists in history, from Latin renderings by Palestrina and Rossini, to Mozart and Tavener, to Morales and Byrd, to Tallis in English and Bach in German. Listen to any and all of them as part of your Advent observance, which heard devoutly, should overflow into your praying of the Magnificat every day at Vespers.

As I began, by having recourse to Luther’s opening invocation to Our Lady, permit to conclude with his pious words of hope for his effort in his “explanation” of Mary’s hymn of praise:

“We pray God to give us a right understanding of this Magnificat, an understanding that consists not merely in brilliant words, but a glowing life in body and soul. May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of His dear Mother Mary. Amen.”

Endnotes:

1In Pope John Paul II’s masterpiece of Marian doctrine and devotion, Redemptoris Mater, he offers this keen summary of our canticle: “In these sublime words, which are simultaneously very simple and wholly inspired by the sacred texts of the people of Israel, Mary’s personal experience, the ecstasy of her heart, shines forth. In them shines a ray of the mystery of God, the glory of his ineffable holiness, the eternal love which, as an irrevocable gift, enters into human history” (n. 36).

2Here we are reminded of Cardinal Newman’s wisdom: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

3There is a very ancient and strong tradition which holds that Mary had made a vow of virginity; hence, she did not doubt that she would become a mother (since that was the Angel’s message) but merely inquired as to how that might take place – given the prior vow. See Numbers 30 for the possibility of a vow of virginity in Judaism (admittedly, very rare).

4Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit (making a virgin a mother) brings to mind how, we are told in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God “hovered” over the abyss, bringing creation forth from the chaos. Similarly, at the epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest’s extended hands “hovering” over the elements of bread and wine, transform them – through the power of the same Holy Spirit – into the very Body and Blood of Christ.

5The Vulgate has this expression as gratia plena, which is a fitting translation of the original Greek of kecharitomene, the perfect passive participle – thoroughly graced – reminiscent of the line in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, where we read that the children of God have received “grace upon grace” (1:16). Gabriel’s initial address to Mary by title, rather than name, should remind us of the fact that Our Lady is never referred to in the Gospel of John by name, but only by title: “the woman” or “the mother of Jesus.”

6St. Bernard offers an imaginative but delightful narrative in which Our Lady is insistently urged to utter her fiat by all of creation. That text finds its way into the Office of Readings for December 20.

7This saving encounter is enshrined in the Church’s thrice-daily (dawn, noon, dusk) prayer of the Angelus, and immortalized in art by the work of Jean-François Millet.

8And so, between the Annunciation and the Visitation, we have the first half of the “Hail, Mary,” a staple of Catholic spirituality from time immemorial.

9One of the loveliest depictions of this holy encounter comes from the brush of the fifteenth-century Belgian artist, Jacques Daret.

10We include the Latin text for two reasons: first, it is the official liturgical language of the Church of the Roman/Latin Rite; second, some of the most “magnificent” musical settings of this hymn were composed using the Latin text.

11It is important for Catholics to realize just how Catholic Luther remained in so many ways, even after his revolt. It is also important for Protestants to be challenged in their all-too-often anti-Marian stance by highlighting Luther’s Mariology, accepting Mary’s perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and bodily assumption (with the last two not even defined dogmas in his time).

12The patristic authors cited here come mostly from the Catena Aurea (Golden Chain) of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he provides commentary on New Testament passages from the Fathers of the Church, too often neglected in “modern” exegesis. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its 1993 document, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” lamented the loss of patristic exegesis and expressed pleasure at scholarly efforts to revive it.

13It is worth mentioning that a long liturgical tradition has us end the psalms and canticles with the minor doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” Why? Firstly, because such praise should rise spontaneously from our lips when we have prayed these sacred songs with attention and devotion. Secondly, it is a way of inserting such prayers into the great Christian mystery of the Blessed Trinity.

“Visitation”, from Altarpiece of the Virgin (1434-35) by Jacques Daret. (St Vaast Altarpiece/Wikipedia)

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 208 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

3 Comments

  1. “Mary could not have composed a work of such theological complexity and literary polish,” German Biblical critics are said to have asserted. But, in addition to “being saturated from her childhood with holy scriptures,” she could well have given particular attention to the Canticle of Hannah, as her mother St. Anne could have as well, since Hannah is the namesake of Anne, her mother.

    • Ah, but in the unique case of Mary, she was/is sinless because God, her Saviour, kept her free from sin. As the Catechism states, “…from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.” So, yes, she readily and perfectly acknowledged and praised God her Savior, precisely because He kept her from sin.

      We know that those who enter into heaven are sinless (cf. Rev 21:27). Do they not need a Saviour? The point is that we recognize that everyone who is saved, including Mary, is saved by God and His grace–but that Mary, in fact, was unique in that the gift of grace given to her was from the moment of her conception and that she always cooperated perfectly with that grace.

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