By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study
All across the world the people of God pray with the words of Mary from the Gospel of Luke, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord …” The Canticle of Mary, also known as the Magnificat, is the staple of Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and first appears in Luke 1:46-55 as Mary’s response to the work of God in her life as she comes to understand what God is doing through her pregnancy.
A canticle is quite simply a prayer that offers praise to God. Much like the psalms, biblical canticles are written to be chanted or set to melody so that the message of praise might be remembered and become a pattern for our own personal offerings of praise.
Mary’s canticle serves as the culmination of the events in her life that lead up to the birth of Jesus. The angel Gabriel has appeared to her announcing that she will bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26-38), she has been told of her elder kinswoman’s pregnancy and goes to visit her in a hillside village about 90 miles away, and the elder Elizabeth greets Mary with joy and blessing (Luke 1:39-45).
The Magnificat captures not only Mary’s awe and wonder at God’s intervention in her life, it also speaks of God’s saving deeds for the world and, in the process, draws each of us to experience that same wonder.
The prayer opens with Mary’s personal experience of God who has done “great things” for her (1:46-49) but quickly shifts to the great things God has done for all: “His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him” (1:50).
If we approach the words of Mary’s prayer with honest curiosity, we might ask, “How is God’s mercy shown?” The prayer itself describes God’s mercy as dispersing the arrogant (1:51), throwing down rulers and lifting up the lowly (1:52), and sending the rich away empty while filling the hungry with good things (1:53). Undoubtedly, God’s mercy involves social reversals, political reversals and economic reversals.
This raises important questions. If God shows mercy to the humble and the hungry and the poor, does that mean God withholds mercy from the arrogant and the powerful and the rich? Or does it mean that unless we discover and embrace our humility and hunger and poverty, we might not have that deep experience of God’s mercy?
The prophets of Israel may be of help in this regard. Men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Micah spoke with the authority of God in a period of history that saw the nation states of Israel and Judah unraveling from within and without. There were powerful kingdoms outside their borders gobbling up smaller nations and nipping at their sovereignty until they finally crumbled.
Within the communities of God’s people there was an additional kind of collapse going on, a collapse of covenant living. This means that God’s people were neglecting the covenant demands of living justly, loving faithfully, and worshiping the God of their salvation.
The poor were neglected and abused, and religious and political leaders seemed to have lost their moral compass. The harsh words of the prophets were not solely intended to shame or punish those in positions of power. Their purpose was to call all of Israel to a deeper conversion so that their words and deeds were in harmony with their calling to be God’s people.
The prophets offered those who were violating God’s law the opportunity for conversion. Their blunt language may on the surface sound condemning but the prophets were offering the kind of mercy that would transform their listeners from the inside out.
Perhaps we can see the Canticle of Mary as part of the prophetic tradition of the Bible. She sings of the triumph of the poor and lowly but not necessarily at the expense of the rich and mighty. Within Mary’s words of prayer we are invited to submit ourselves to God’s vision of the world.
While it might cause us discomfort, we are being instructed to bend to God’s plan, to beg for God’s mercy, and to begin to imitate God’s care for those on the fringes. We are also being urged to count ourselves among the poor and lowly, to discover our own poverty that can only be filled with the richness of God’s mercy.
• In your own prayer life, how does sung prayer enter into your experience?
• The word “fear” that occurs so often in phrases such as “fear of the Lord” is meant to be associated with awe and reverence. How does that meaning help you understand 1:50, “His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him”?
• When you consider your family or close circle of friends, how have you seen God’s mercy expressed? How has an experience of need or being left out sometimes opened you or others to receive Gods’ mercy?
• Do you find comfort in the words of the Canticle of Mary or do you find the words disturbing? What difference do you think it makes to pray these words from a position of power or privilege in the world vs. a position of need or insignificance?