Instead of giving us the expected Psalm among this week’s readings, the lectionary offers us a song from the Gospels: the Magnificat. Taking its name from the Latin version of its first line, Magnificat anima mea Dominum (“My soul magnifies the Lord,” NRSV), this is an ancient song of praise that we hear on the lips of Mary, the woman who will give birth to Christ.
Mary’s Magnificat joins an intriguing treasure trove of scriptural songs that are commonly known as canticles. Spanning both testaments, the canticles are present in almost every form of biblical literature, including the preaching of the prophets (in joy as well as in lamentation), the wisdom sayings, historical narratives, epistles, and apocalyptic visions. These songs both interrupt and adorn the text; the imagery and rhythms of their poetry heighten and illuminate the drama of the passages in which they are embedded. Though ranging across the entire Bible, the canticles form something of a textual body of their own. Along with the Psalms, they offer a vibrant core of poetry from which the church for centuries has drawn to give voice to our joy, sorrow, praise, and hope.
In her essay in The Canticles (a collection published by Liturgy Training Publications more than a decade ago—and later suppressed, but that’s another story), Irene Nowell, OSB, writes of how the canticles “function like a bridge between telling our story and turning to God in prayer. In form and style,” she observes,
they resemble psalms, but they differ from the psalms in their setting…. These prayers are set in the mouths of specific people in specific situations. They both interrupt the flow of the story and add to its meaning. They are bridges over the gap between life and prayer.
I keep this collection of the canticles on a small table by my door. Usually I leave it open to one of the wonderfully haunting monotype prints that artist Linda Ekstrom created to adorn its pages. But for the past couple of days it’s been open to the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary, the song in praise of the God who turns the world upside down.
Mary offers this song in response to a blessing. Luke tells us that when Mary finds herself alone in the wake of the archangel Gabriel’s visit, she goes “with haste” to see her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is experiencing a strange pregnancy herself. As soon as she hears Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth intuits what has taken place, and she lays a mighty blessing on Mary for how she is participating in the work of God. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth cries, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth continues in a powerful benedictory vein for some verses.
In response, Mary sings.
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…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1, excerpts)
I find this scene among the most potent in all of scripture. The image of Elizabeth offering her words of blessing, and Mary responding with song: this moment epitomizes the power of the act of blessing. With her gesture of grace, Elizabeth the Blesser challenges us toward similar action: to recognize where God is working in the world, and to participate in bringing this work to completion.
The blessed Mary sings about the God who is doing a new thing, but her song is not entirely original. Within its cadences we hear the ghostly echo of a more ancient song. In one of the first canticles to appear in the scriptures, a woman named Hannah offers praise to God for responding to her plea for a child. After she leaves her long-awaited son Samuel at the Temple, to begin his training as a nazirite, Hannah sings, in part:
My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory…
The Lord makes poor and and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts up the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Sam. 2.1, 7-8b)
With a voice of longing and exultation that links them across the generations, both women are singing not only about pregnancy and physical birth. For Hannah and for Mary, the massive change within them is linked to a radical transformation beyond them. There is a congruence between what God has stirred within them—in their wombs, in their souls—and what God is stirring in the world.
I find myself wondering about that kind of congruence, and how God is calling it forth in my own life. Regardless of whether we’re called to give birth to physical children, God challenges us to cultivate an interior spirit that is intimately linked with the world beyond us. In this Advent season, what’s stirring inside me that connects me with the world around me? What is God seeking to bring forth in my life that enables me to participate in the transformation that God is working in all creation? And how is God challenging me to be both Elizabeth, Blesser, and Mary, Blessed?
I think I’ll leave my copy of The Canticles open to the Magnificat for a while yet, on its table by my door. In these Advent days, perhaps the words of Mary’s ancient song will be a visible blessing—invocation, benediction—as I pass back and forth across the threshold, from exterior to interior and back again.