Happy Feast of the Assumption: Close-Reading the Magnificat

Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which you can read all about here. To celebrate our awesome mother, I’m going to take a close look at today’s Gospel reading, which includes the Magnificat – my favorite Scripture passage.

Some context: In Luke’s gospel, after Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she is going to be the Mother of God, Mary travels to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. Turns out Elizabeth is also expecting (John the Baptist — impressive family), despite her old age. Elizabeth comforts her cousin, and confirms that Mary’s encounter with the angel was not a crazy dream. Relieved and emboldened, Mary offers a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

Let’s jump in:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

Some English versions translate this line as “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (The prayer gets its name from its first word in Latin: Magnificat.) I love this idea. I picture Mary holding up a huge magnifying glass. When we approach her, we get a closer look at what God is like. Also, the glass shoots divine light off in every direction, illuminating the Earth with God’s love. We all know those people who seem to magnify the Lord by their lives — by their kindness, gentleness, humor, energy, or depth of their commitment to the Gospel. When the journey of faith is particularly challenging for me, I seek out time to chat with those people. Not because they can give me every answer to every difficult faith question, but because their example inspires me to keep going. If he or she wants to be about this stuff, so do I — even when it’d be easier to give up.

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.

True humility is not playing small or deflecting praise whenever it comes. Instead, humility is awareness of both the gifts and shortcomings you have; it’s a realization that you are a blessed, unique child of God who didn’t do anything to earn the gifts you’ve been given. In these lines of the Magnificat, Mary acknowledges that God has chosen her for an extremely important task. But she also says that she will have to depend on God to guide her through her big-time vocation. Her humility is a great example for us.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.

I’ve been reflecting on God’s mercy recently in light of Pope Francis’ special emphasis on the concept. He is plugged in to Mary’s idea that God’s mercy is available in any age to those who seek God with open hearts.

From his press conference on the plane back to Italy from World Youth Day, in response to a question about divorced and remarried Catholics, Pope Francis talked about our own time as an age in particular need of God’s mercy:

Mercy is a larger theme than the question you raise [divorced and remarried Catholics]. I believe this is the time of mercy. This change of epoch, also because of many problems of the church — such as the example of some priests who aren’t good, also the problems of corruption in the church — and also the problem of clericalism, for example, has left many wounds, many wounds. The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don’t have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It’s a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn’t say: ‘But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?’ No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there’s someone … but, it’s not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.

Mary has an intimate relationship with God that predates Gabriel’s announcement. The Magnificat itself echoes the Song of Hannah from the Books of Samuel — Scripture Mary knew deeply and used to frame her own song to God. So when Mary starts describing what God is like here, it’d be smart to pay close attention. This section starts by describing God’s strength, and what he does with that strength.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Mary uses stark contrasts to describe what God’s mercy and power look like. Mighty: Down. Lowly: Up. Hungry: Filled. Rich: Empty. God is a threat to those who proudly lord it over others. So subversive is this line that public recitation of the Magnificat was banned by the authoritarian Guatemalan government in the 1980s. At the same time, God has a special care for the weak and vulnerable. His action in the world is simultaneously disbanding and uplifting.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.

The biggest word here is promise, which is repeated in consecutive lines. Mary is recalling the covenant relationship God established and renewed with Israel throughout Hebrew Scriptures, and places herself in that tradition. God promises Mary (and us) he is present, and empowers her (and us) to use our gifts to change the world.

On this Feast of the Assumption, may Mary’s prayer inspire us to pray with conviction, to practice humility, and to work for a more just world.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.