DECEMBER 22, 2005- 1 SAMUEL 2:1-8; LUKE 1:46- 56
MY SOUL PROCLAIMS THE GREATNESS OF THE LORD AND MY SPIRIT REJOICES IN GOD MY SAVIOR. These words of Mary are among the most familiar of the whole bible. We who pray the divine office sing them every day at Vespers. They form the opening verse of a hymn of praise directed to God as the source of the greatest of blessings, the gift of his Son who comes as our Savior. Certainly this Canticle of Mary is an expression of her humility. It directs to God the glory she received in becoming the Mother of the Messiah. It was the praise given her by Elizabeth at the Visitation that prompted her to reply with this acknowledgment of God’s greatness and of her own lowliness.
For the main subject of Mary’s Magnificat is God not Mary herself; Mary is the object of his mercy, and through her, the people of God. While Mary speaks of the great honor shown to her she makes it clear that it is God who performs the work in her and so he is the one to be magnified. All the more is God to be praised, she affirms, in that he accomplishes this great deed in such a lowly servant as herself. "For he has had regard to the lowliness of his servant", as she phrases it.
However, humble acknowledgment has nothing to do with self-doubt or inferiority feelings; on the contrary, throughout this Canticle there is a decided tone of confidence, affirmation, even of exultation. Mary is aware of serving the Almighty who in her becomes the victor. He is the one with power to put down the mighty, to scatter the very idea they have of themselves. Toward the proud-hearted he displays strength that fills them with dismay. Yet, he acts with a mercy that elevates those he chooses, the hungry and the poor. She is the instrument of this overturning of the world’s order of things, and she is so keenly conscious of her role in this astonishing exchange that she is exultant. What she exults in is God’s way of affirming his rule by using lowly instruments to achieve the highest purpose.
At this moment of her exaltation, as she is praised by Elizabeth as the chosen mother of the Messiah, Mary identifies herself with her people, Israel, the children of Abraham. In honoring her, she proclaims, God "has accepted his servant Israel, mindful of his mercy." At the same time and by the same act of causing her to become the mother of his Son, God proves true to his promise made to Abraham and his posterity for all ages. Thus Mary, rather than situate herself alone at the center of this new beginning of salvation, presents herself as one with the people of God. She experiences her own destiny, even her very self as belonging to those God chooses as his own people. Her exaltation, her privileges, her unique role are at the service of the children of God, gathered together in the Church. She is in all truth the honor of the people of God, and that is how she understands herself.
It is of considerable interest to discover that three early manuscripts of the Old Latin translation of Luke, ascribe the Magnificat, not to Mary, but to Elizabeth. Although all the more ancient Greek texts, on the other hand, witness to Mary as the speaker, yet Irenaeus and Origen, both of whom were familiar with the Greek tradition, read ‘Elizabeth’. So there is reason to maintain, as a minority of modern exegetes do, that the Old Latin preserves Luke’s original text. What remains clear is that there were in early times fervent believers who considered this Canticle characterized well the dispositions of Elizabeth as well as those of Mary. In either case, there is no doubt that same Spirit inspired them both and that the text is worthy of Mary as well as of Elizabeth and a faithful reflection of the character and dispositions of both these saintly women. If we pray this Canticle every day as the Church directs us to do, it is that we join with Mary, Elizabeth and all the saints of God is praising him for sending his own Son into the world to bring us salvation. Mary’s words set the tone for the prayer of the Christian believer. Her sense of gratitude, her faith and her confidence that through the Son she conceived God’s plan is on the way to victorious realization remains the model of the dispositions we are to cultivate and of our prayer as we prepare to welcome the Son of God, our Savior, at his birth in the flesh.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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