Anyone who says Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours regularly recites the Magnificat from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Named for its first word in Latin, this canticle is one of only four places in the Gospels where the Blessed Virgin’s words are recorded. And the Magnificat contains more words than the other three passages combined. The rarity and brevity of Mary’s words, however, should not diminish their importance. Indeed, the Magnificat is among the most theologically powerful speeches in the entirety of the New Testament. Given its place in the narrative of the birth of Our Lord, the commencement of Advent is the perfect time for meditating on Our Lady’s words.
A newly pregnant Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary greets Elizabeth, John leaps in his mother’s womb, prompting Elizabeth’s own contribution to the Christian liturgical tradition. “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” exclaims Mary’s cousin (Lk 1:42). “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45). This elicits Mary’s response, that begins, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum“: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.”
Mary’s pregnancy represents our own liturgical experience in the season of Advent. The Lord has arrived in her womb, yet she awaits the fulfillment of his appearance. So, too, we live under the lordship of Christ, while we wait in hopeful expectation of his return. And John the Baptist, who will become the voice from the desert proclaiming the coming of the savior, has already made his presence felt to Elizabeth. The incarnational details of the scene draw our minds to the God who became flesh so that we may become like God.
Echoing the hopeful words of the prophet Isaiah, the Magnificat could be called a primer on the Church’s doctrine of solidarity. Here, at the commencement of the Blessed Virgin’s mysterious and wonderful gestation of Our Lord, she proclaims that this birth will upset the order of things. God calls lowly Mary as the exemplar of humility and selfless service. And in that humble submission, her soul is exalted. The last has been made first. Considering all these things, the Magnificat may be the perfect Advent prayer.
“A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!,” exclaims the prophet Isaiah. “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). From the disorder of wilderness will come the order of restoration. “Every valley shall be lifted up,” the prophet continues, “every mountain and hill made low.” The rugged and rough shall be made smooth and plain. And having made all things level, the Lord “like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care” (Is 40:11).
Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s mercy echoes through from age to age until it finds its renewed articulation in Mary’s canticle, in which the Lord “has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy” (LK 1:54). God “has … lifted up the lowly,” Our Lady proclaims (Lk 1:52). “The hungry he has filled with good things” (Lk 1:53). Like Isaiah, Mary’s prophetic voice puts the poor and hungry in the center of theological consideration. To those whom mercy has been denied, mercy now has come.
Some commentators have suggested that the Magnificat may be a traditional early Christian hymn, put in the mouth of Mary as a kind of early creedal confession. Part of the explanation for this theory is that the hymn makes no direct reference to Mary’s pregnancy, or the expectation of the coming of the savior. The broader message, these scholars contend, makes it more likely that the hymn came later, and was retroactively put into the mouth of Our Lady.
While the theory has some merit, I believe that it misses the overall messianic tone of the canticle. The song is not simply about Our Lady’s pregnancy, but rather about what that pregnancy means to a fallen world. Just as the birth of Christ is about much more than a baby in a feeding trough, so the Magnificat accounts for the expansive — indeed, eternal — message of the Incarnation. A lowly birth to a lowly woman ushers in the magnificent fulfillment of God’s offer and promise of salvation. This puts the Magnificat squarely in the context of the Incarnation, which has commenced in Mary’s womb.