Mary’s song of praise is featured in the Gospel for today, the poem that we refer to as the “Magnificat.” This canticle is so important in the prayer life of the Church that we pray it every day as part of Evening Prayer. It is also, according to some musicologists, the Biblical passage most frequently set to music throughout the history of composition. A quick glance through your parish hymnal will no doubt prove that the same is true today.
At my last Bible study class, the “Magnificat” came up for comment. Some were very surprised to learn that the words which Mary uses to praise God are not entirely her own. She borrows heavily from the Hebrew Scriptures, especially from the canticle sung by Hannah in the First Book of Samuel upon delivering a male child after years of being thought of as barren.
My heart exults in the LORD, my horn is exalted by my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in your victory.
There is no Holy One like the LORD; there is no Rock like our God.
Speak boastfully no longer, do not let arrogance issue from your mouths.
For an all-knowing God is the LORD, a God who weighs actions.
The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength.
The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry no longer have to toil.
The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes.
The LORD puts to death and gives life, casts down to Sheol and brings up again.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich, humbles, and also exalts.
He raises the needy from the dust; from the ash heap lifts up the poor,
To seat them with nobles and make a glorious throne their heritage.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and he has set the world upon them.
He guards the footsteps of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall perish in the darkness;
for not by strength does one prevail. The LORD’s foes shall be shattered;
the Most High in heaven thunders; the LORD judges the ends of the earth.
May he give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed!”
Of course, Mary would have known this passage of the Hebrew Scriptures. Luke’s composition relies heavily on Hannah’s canticle in order to make the point that Mary and Hannah are both aware of God’s actions in their lives, that God has once again reversed the fortunes of those who are faithful, and that God will prevail. The theme of the reversal of fortune will continue throughout the Gospel, most frequently stated in the familiar “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator