the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

1999 - online version


By Prof. Daniel W. Casey, Jr
Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Archeology
Scholar in Residence at Tantur Ecumenical Institute

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit
rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked
with favor on the lowliness of His servant."
Luke 1:46b-47 [NRSV].

In this exultant verse from the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel, May joyfully responds to God’s favoring her. And through Mary, God honors us as all "those who fear Him from generation to generation" (Luke 1:50). Indeed Mary is God’s "preferential option for the poor," and thus her Magnificat is simultaneously our song of praise and redemption. The title Magnificat derives from the opening line of the Latin Vulgate’s translation "Magnificat anima mea Dominum," which means "my soul magnifies the Lord." Mary’s Magnificat is like a kaleidoscope. Depending on how we twist our colored crystals, we have various re-configurations to excite wondrous awe: e.g., the Magnificat (1) as a tapestry; (2) as a song; and (3) as a journey! As you read this article, enjoy the rich contours and groupings of this "magnificent," ever new and changing dance, the Canticle of Thanksgiving and Liberation!!

Mary’s Magnificat is like an appealing tapestry, with the inter-twining threads of "warp and woof" creating a woven fabric. This textile is enriched by the personages and narratives of God’s workings within both Ancient Israel, and Luke’s Faith-Communities. The warp (i.e., the set of yarns placed lengthwise in the loom) are the stories and songs of the Hebrew Scriptures, which form Mary’s Psalm of rejoicing. The woof (i.e. the threads crossing horizontally and interweaving with the warp) are the lived-experiences and piety of the humble "Poor Ones" [‘anawim], a Greek-speaking circle of Jewish-Christian house-churches known to Luke in the last third of the First Century AD (around 70-80 AD).

The warp of Mary’s Tapestry comprises a number of texts and events laced throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, which provide verbal similarity with Mary’s Magnificat, and intertwine the narrative of Israel with the narrative of Jesus. Scriptural echoes from all parts of the tri-partite Hebrew Scriptures form the repository of Mary’s Song of Liberation. Flashbacks to the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings are all complementary to the main allusions in Hannah’s "Magnificat of Rejoicing" in I Samuel 2:1-10.

The woof of Mary’s tapestry, celebrating God’s creative ongoing in-breaking, is the daily struggle of Luke’s people of faith, or the ‘Anawim (i.e. the humble "Poor Ones" in both the spiritual and material sense of the word). Mary becomes a "corporate personality," bespeaking paradigmatically the freeing joy of God’s redeeming activities in their suffocating world milieu.

But even more than a simple inter-twining of "warp and woof," Mary’s Magnificat is a new woven fabric with an organic integrity of insight. Her tapestry’s strands incorporate threads of Ancient Israel’s spirituality with the piety of Mary’s contemporaries. These several intersecting cross-references comprise a single enriched tapestry woven by the same liberating God – "the Mighty One" – for both Israel and Mary and her associates. This "warp and woof" is held together by their God who is ever revealing Himself in newness, and consistently exhibiting divine faithfulness and mercy (1) in times past; (2) through the present crises; and (3) to all "those who fear Him from generation to generation" (Luke 1:50). The powerful and enduring impact of Mary’s Magnificat is generated by the interweaving between the formative and decisive events of Ancient Israel’s traditions, and the transforming and defining endeavors of Luke’s Jewish-Christian "Poor Ones." In a profound way, the synthesis of "warp and woof" was crafted in human endeavors well before our literary tapestry!

Mary’s Magnificat, celebrated only in Luke’s Gospel, is one of four Hymns, distilled from a collection of early Jewish-Christian Canticles. These songs are Mary’s Magnificat; Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1: 67-79); the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2: 13-14); and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 28-32). In form and content, these four psalms are patterned on "the hymns of praise" in Ancient Israel’s Psalter. These songs reverberate with the Salvation History of Ancient Israel. They are a medley of Biblical melodies re-composed into a new expression of exultant thanksgiving. These four Lucan Canticles’ diction, parallelism of construction, regular beat of accent, and arrangement of strophes re-tune these Hebrew "oldies but goodies" into hymns of praise for God’s positive and life-transforming reversals in the lives of Mary and her contemporaries.

Mary’s "song of reversals" closely parallels the Song of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, in I Samuel 2: 1-10, with some verbal echoes very conspicuous. For example, Hannah proclaims: "My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord ... I rejoice in Your salvation" (I Samuel 2: 1 and Luke 1: 47). She characterizes herself as the Lord’s "handmaid" four times (vs. 11 [three times] and vs. 16), as does Mary twice in verse 38 and 48. The mother of Samuel exults: "The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low, He also exults. He raises the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor" (I Samuel 2: 7-8 and Luke 1: 51-53).

In addition, the Mary/Hannah parallelism continues from the Magnificat into Luke’s second chapter. Mary presents her child, Jesus, to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 22,27); Hannah brings her child, Samuel, to the house of the Lord at Shiloh (I Samuel 1: 24).

Besides Hannah, another female canticle-singer that Mary is patterned upon is Judith, "blessed among women" (Judith 13: 18; cf. Luke 1: 42 for Mary in Elizabeth’s benediction), who also sings "to my God a new song" of the oppressed and marginalized peoples (Judith 16: 1-17). And finally, the matriarch Leah, the wife of Jacob/Israel, provides another lyrical background through her response to her God-provided miracle sons: "Because the Lord has regarded my low estate ... Fortunate am I, for all women call me fortunate" (Genesis 29: 32 and 30: 13). Profoundly though, Mary’s self-description in the Magnificat moves well beyond the observations of Leah or Elizabeth, because now not only all women – but "all generations" – will deem Mary "fortunate because (1) "He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid" and (2) "He who is mighty has done great things for me" (vss. 48-49).

As a side note, Mary’s Magnificat has been integrated into the Church’s liturgy from at least the time of St. Benedict and St. Caesarius (5th-6th Centuries AD). This Canticle has been utilized in the Morning Office by the Eastern Church. The Western Church uses it as a Hymn for Vespers of Evening Prayer.

Luke portrays Mary as the singer of this "song of reversals," and thereby the interpreter of the contemporary events taking place. Thus Mary (who symbolizes both Ancient Israel and the Lucan Faith-Communities of the humble "Poor Ones") becomes interpreter and exegete of Israel’s Salvation History, and the prophetic teacher of liberation theology and social justice for all future generations who "will call me fortunate" (Luke 1: 48b).

Mary’s Magnificat, besides being a tapestry and a song, is most profoundly a journey. Mary’s exultation of mercy, celebrating reversals, is most radically the disciple’s justice-seeking pilgrimage. This Canticle is a Biblical theology-in-motion. It conveys the whole majestic sweep of "Judeo-Christian faith" from Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, through Mary’s graced events, until the end of time.

The Magnificat is a revolutionary document of passionate conflict and vindication, calling all believers to a journey of solidarity with all oppressed peoples. Mary’s Song is the great new Canticle of Liberation, praising a God who has promised "com-unity" with those who suffer from personal and systemic injustice, and more importantly has been "faith-full" to those sustaining promises.

Mary’s vocation is our vocation. Mary teaches us courage and solidarity in all liberating strife. Mary lifts up the small horizon of our sighted vision to the abundant insight of here boundary-breaking Son.

This shared pilgrimage of Mary’s Magnificat is a journey of prophetic discipleship-witness. Indeed, in Luke’s developed and well-ordered "Good News," Mary transforms resplendently from her stereotypical role as a natural mother (in the birthing and nursing of Jesus on the biological level), to the Lucan example par excellence of a true disciple (in the hearing and obeying of the Word of God): "While He (Jesus) was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But He said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it!’" (Luke 11: 27-28).

Thus, the Cathecism of the Catholic Church can rightly conclude:
That is why the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat (Latin) or Megalynei (Byzantine) is the song both of the Mother of God and of the Church; the song of the Daughter of Zion and of the new People of God; the song of thanksgiving for the fullness of graces poured out in the economy of salvation and the song of the "poor" whose hope is met by the fulfillment of the promises made to our ancestors, "to Abraham and to his posterity for ever" (#2619).

Indeed our souls magnify the Lord for the sustaining companionship of Mary, and for the kaleidoscope of her Magnificat as our Tapestry, our Song, and our Journey.

copyright 1999

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