A Reflection on the Canticle of Mary

This reflection is meant as a companion piece to one I wrote earlier on the Canticle of Zechariah. Reflection on the Canticle of Mary actually ought to precede that on the Canticle of Zechariah. The day, after all, begins with the vigil of the night before. Fair enough, but I’m glad I began as I did. I didn’t really worry that I was treading on well-known terrain. But who can say the words “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” or even simply “Magnificat…,” without a sense of trespassing where countless others, not only with words, but also with images and music, have trod? It’s too late for such trepidations now! As with the Canticle of Zechariah, the meditation is conditioned by the process of memorizing the song in the Latin.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Or, My soul magnifies the Lord. Every word contains the letter “m.” The whole line meditates on and luxuriates in the act of magnifying the Lord. The self-giving of the Mother of God, who models perfect obedience for the Church, is at once miraculous and magnificent. Syntactically and grammatically, form matches content. The anima, like the Blessed Virgin herself, is feminine and gives way to the superiority of her Dominus. In this way, her words can be my words, and in some sense always already are before I become conscious of them on my lips and even in my heart. 

Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo. And my spirit has exulted in God my saviour. Such gorgeous rhythm: “in Deo salvatore meo.” Truly the spirit does exult in Deo salvatore meo. It indwells the phrase, which constitutes a dimension of the reality. The whole line indulges in such playfulness: et ex…; spiritus meus; Deo…meo; Deo..ore..meo. My soul proclaims…and my spirit has exulted. The mixture of past with the present captures the savouring, an implied exulting in having exulted, a having exulted that has not been proven to be premature or false. The identity of the Dominum is developed, with “Deo” and “salvatore meo” augmenting the description.

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae. For he has respected the humility of his maidservant. His maidservant. My mind wanders to the phrase included by Petrarch in  his Latin written version of a popular folktale ostensibly about a girl, Griselde, who demonstrates unfathomable obedience. The Virgin takes possession of this phrase for all time and reveals the promise of the obediental life for all time too. The revelation of a revelation, the Mother of her Son, of his consummate obedience unto death, even death on a cross, the maid-like man. He has regarded the humility of this one. He has seen it, he has apprehended it, as only He could. It is our humility too, the humility of the Church, of whom the Blessed Virgin is a figure and a type. As the great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote in Mary through the Centuries, her words “put into action the identification of faith with obedience, and by describing her obedience to the word of God made of her the model of faith.”

Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes. Here are two different readings. For behold, from this time forward all people will call me blessed. This construction follows the pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, which has “For behold, from henceforth….” Technically, the first word of this phrase is “enim.” Ecce enim translates as something like, “For behold (ecce)…,” except that in Latin “enim” cannot occupy the first position. “Ecce enim ex hoc”: For behold, from now. The whole phrase builds up to a running speed, then stops abruptly at the “now” (hoc). More accurately, ex hoc translates as something like “out of this.” In keeping with that emphasis, one might translate the opening words simply as “Behold, for out of this….” Really look at his regarding of my lowliness, for out of this act of his regarding, all generations will call me blessed. He has looked with mercy on my lowliness, and this is the result! No kidding every generation will call you blessed. That’s the understatement of the day! So much so that one imagines her singing the phrase with a twinkle in her eye, mirthfully.

Sarah laughed in derision. Mary rescues her. Not only Eve, as Irenaeus saw, but Sarah too. Sarah’s womb was too old, withered, spent. Mary’s hasn’t yet been opened, and never will be, except from the inside out. Sarah laughed at an old man hanging out with his gods, his visiting friends; she laughed with worldly wisdom at what she thought was mere patriarchy. She’d seen too much. Mary laughed with virginal delight, real belief, and expectation. She was in on the divine joke. Not in that mean-spirited, cruel way with which all our jokes are laced, the way of snobbery, irony, and exclusion, but the way that sanctifies all our jokes, a blessed fruit indeed of youthful, innocent, unquestioning obedience.

Beatam me dicent. Will call me blessed. It’s helpful to think this phrase properly, if one is reading the Latin. From this time forward they will call me blessed (beatam). The me goes with dicent rather than with beatam. They will call me…. What will they call me? Beatam. Beatam! That’s what they’ll call me! Who will call me this? Omnes generationes. All generations. Every generation. In every generation there will be a testimony to my blessedness, to what God has done for me and in me, making me the Mother of the incarnate Son, the Mother of God.

Quia fecit mihi magna. For he has done great things for me. The quia naturally echoes the quia of the earlier line, but the movement is in the opposite direction. He has looked upon the lowliness of his maidservant. He has done great things for me. Both actions are in the past, or at least referred to in the past tense. They carry with them the sense of sure, accomplished action; they carry with them the kind of action for which one can look to God with assurance. The shortness of the line reinforces the simple assuredness of the claim. Pleasingly, the word order has “magna” last, as if it were an explosion, a big bang with cosmic implications, compressed into alliterative understatement.

Qui potens est. Who is powerful. That understatement becomes extreme. Even the word quia is “shortened,” as it were, becoming qui. Who has done great things for me? The one who is powerful. The one who is power. The one who has the capacity for doing great things, unimaginable things, things so bizarre no one else would ever think of doing them or even want to do them.

Et sanctum nomen eius. And holy is his name. Bizarre, yet holy. For he cannot do or be otherwise. Holiness is the name of this agent. Holiness is what he does. Whatever one might think holiness may be, his “magna” themselves define it, make it manifest. Mary does not claim sanctity for herself. It’s not her that has earned this unfathomable visitation. The holiness belongs to the one who has, through the angel and through the tradition, revealed himself by name to her. Here too there is a pleasing echo, as the Latin goes from mihi to eius over a distance: to me, (the name) of him.

Et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies. And his mercy from age to age. His name…his mercy. He has done great things for me, he is (all-)powerful, his name is holy, and now it’s his mercy that shall last from age to age. The emphasis continues to lie squarely on God, on what he has done for Mary, what he does for his people, the nature of his disposition towards me. In progenies et progenies recalls omnes generationes, at once the unending beneficiaries of the blessing and mercy of God and the ongoing testimony to who he is and what he has done.

Timentibus eum. To those who fear him. Of all the things one hears and reads about this rich and strange biblical word, encountered perhaps most insistently in the Psalms, I want to recall the ongoingness of it, which puts the fear of the Lord in the context of faithfulness and therefore of community belongingness and practice.

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo. Literally: He has made power in his arm. He has displayed his power. Now he displays the power that is sheer potency a few lines above. Except any good Thomist will tell you that can’t be, since “potency” is somehow less than full “actuality,” so God is pure act. Yes. He has been acting throughout this narrative, and throughout the narrative of his interactions with the people he has called, and the being of the God who is being revealed, even as we speak with Mary and in the time in which we return again and again to these lines, is being revealed as trinitarian mutuality, self-giving, and dance. Yet we experience this reality temporally, and that temporality is in the moment being vindicated and made all the more real. So we experience him about to act, ready to act, willing to act. The prayer takes a turn here, from Mary to others. God is displaying his power. In the next five phrases, the prayer will strike a careful balance, affirming that God, just as he has always done for his people, vanquishes the proud and opposes the rich, while defending the poor and the needy. For that reason I think we should read this first phrase positively, as a show of power for those who fear him, as opposed to what he does to those whom they fear.

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui. He has scattered (dispersit) the proud in the imagination of their hearts. If ever one wanted to turn to the commentary tradition (which is not really the point of this little exercise in close reading), it would be now. There is something about the disposition of the proud that clouds their thinking, or rather determines its direction. Yet to describe the situation in this way is to think of mente as mind, thinking. Translations also refer to the imagination. In the context, that word seems to suggest the whole range of possibilities or vistas that are conceivable from a dwelling place of proud hearts. The proud are scattered out of their dwelling place, their town, their fortification. The martial strength that was referred to in the previous declaration is now directed against a specific enemy or, following Augustine, the enemy, since all enemies of God share the sin of pride and can be found together under its banner.

Deposuit potentes de sede. He has deposed the powerful ones from their seat. The one who is power has marched into the fortified place, found the hall, and gone right up to the seat of power. It’s a bit laughable to think of the powerful (plural) as sharing power. Tolkien used this understanding effectively in The Lord of the Rings: only one can wear the ring of power. Here, the powers have already shown themselves to be vaguely ridiculous. No doubt they put up a show of force and unity as he strides up to the throne. No matter. They are potentes; he is potens. They sit. He is active, dispersing and deposing, two words that not only alliterate but play with the same /p/ and /s/ sounds as well in a reverberating display of strength.

Et exaltavit humiles. And he has exalted the humble. The two negative, cleansing activities are enclosed within more positive ones, displaying power and exalting the humble. The latter reveals his heart. God takes up the cause of the humble, and not as a side project, but as that which he does and shows who he is. “Exaltavit” echoes “exultavit” from Mary’s initial exuberant declaration. She has exulted with her Magnificat because he has exalted her, and along with her, all the humble. Let’s not forget, though, that her response is drenched in faith, for his victory, his exalting of the downtrodden, doesn’t look like much…yet. In fact, initially, it’s only going to make her own position more abject.

Esurientes implevit bonis. The hungry he has filled with good things. In a martial sense, the town that was under the thumb of the tyrannical proud has now been liberated and its casualties of war get fed. In another sense, Mary is the archetype of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and she has been filled with God himself. He is both Goodness itself and the multiplicity of all good things in their participatory particularity.

Et divites dimisit inanes. And the rich he has sent away empty. It’s a little hard on the letter /d/ that it should be so readily associated with evil powers and their overthrow: “dispersit,” “deposuit de sede.” Now it’s “divites dimisit.” The rich are sent away. Presumably the rich were rich when they came, and they still have what they came with. They don’t even know that they came empty, and they might not know that they have been sent away in the same condition. We think of “inane” as stupid, foolish. The metaphorical and the literal are inseparable in the condition of the rich. This twofold statement, Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes, summarizes the nature of the action of the powerful one described in the previous four lines. Together, these six lines comprise a second section. Mary has turned from exulting in the God who has done great things for her to the nature of his actions in the wider sphere of all that is. In that domain, humans have a place of notable importance, as those creatures capable of both the activity of pride and the passivity of humility.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum. He has undertaken for Israel his son. These words are spoken by a woman. She is talking about and giving praise to a male God, who has undertaken for a nation conceived as male. Has she subsumed her own personhood as a female in doing so? Has she found her voice only within patriarchy? If Israel is his son, it is also her child. She is speaking as herself the promised mother of a child. Others, when they speak of her, will speak of puerum suum. Her son is God. I don’t think we can glibly call this an inversion of patriarchy. The cultural history of the Judeo-Christian religion and of mariology is too complicated for that. Nonetheless, Mary’s place in the unfolding history of the people of God itself complicates easy formulations of who or what Israel is, and what it means to refer to Israel as the son or the people of God. Suscepit could be translated simply as “helped.” “To undertake for” captures something of God’s maternal attitude towards his people and his creation, which he covenantally intends to bless through his people. The reference to Israel recalls the references to generations and to progeny earlier in the canticle, and anticipates similar references in the Canticle of Zechariah.

Recordatus misericordiae suae. His mercies remembered. This and the previous phrase are blunt, and their order interchangeable. Did he help Israel because he remembered his quality of mercy? The Book of Common Prayer suggests this causality with its rendering: “He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel.” Or, having helped Israel, was there then a series of mercies (to be) remembered? In the economy of God, such temporal considerations are always fraught. Time itself, however, is not rendered unimportant; such mysteries vivify time, and help to reveal its true nature.

Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros. As was spoken about to our fathers, or, As was said to our fathers. The harmonic convergence of time expands to reach the distant (and not so distant) past of patres nostros. Again the Canticle of Zechariah is anticipated. The phrase sicut locutus there refers to the prophets of old and their message of hope fulfilled now, in the days of the Nativity. Here it refers to the telling of God’s mercies to his people then, mercies shown to the fathers all along the way, so that ultimate help revealed in his sending of his own Son ought not to come as an utter surprise to them. He is the God who undertakes for his people, as he has always done, and as his prophets always have said he would do.

Abraham et semini eius in saecula. Abraham and his seed forever. The phrase specifies to whom that which was said was said. The speaking goes all the way back to the time of Abraham, to whom God revealed himself. That’s how Abraham became the first of patres nostros. The in saecula in a way seems to carry in the direction of looking backwards into the past, as if Abraham’s semini, his seed, were even earlier, as if the promise to Abraham and his seed was a promise to everyone and anyone who exercises the kind of faith Abraham displayed. Of course, in a more natural reading, Abraham is the father of Israel, and the identity and the story of the people of God moves forward from there. It’s to Abraham and all his seed, all our fathers, to whom the story and the promise of God’s mercy is and has been and will be told. The in saecula seems to fold all times into the time of the world, or created being.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. The canticle now moves into what is sometimes called the Minor Doxology, which begins with a trinitarian formulation.

Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. This phrase begins with an echo of the sicut locutus a few lines above. Past, present, and future are all referred to in this phrase.

Et in saecula saeculorum. And in the ages of ages. Apparently the English phrase “world without end” has been used as a translation of this pregnant Latin phrase at least since the time of the Book of Common Prayer. Here saecula recapitulates the term as used in the reference to Abraham and all our fathers.

 Norm Klassen

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