Mary’s Magnificat and Justice

Dorothy Yoder Nyce

I want first to thank you for inviting me to worship with you today. This text and topic of Mary and Justice quite excite me. I have thoroughly enjoyed studying and reflecting in preparing this teaching, and I want you to know of two outstanding resources from which I have freely drawn. They are: Sidney Callahan’s The Magnificat which is enhanced through photographs, and Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. I highly recommend them both to you. My intent is to stay fairly close to the text today, but I trust you to be alert to possible applications for our experience.

What then can we know concerning background to this canticle or song? Clearly, there is a tie in to Luke’s material preceding this about Mary’s going to Elizabeth’s home. Elizabeth greets Mary: “Blessed (By the way, pronounce that word with one syllable only.) are you among women.” Mary is blessed for her belief. Elizabeth is honored by Mary’s coming, Mary the mother of their Liberator.

As for the origin of the song: there are several options. First, it may be seen as primarily a composite, or mosaic of the Old Testament quotes–at least 20 verses appear in the Old Testament and apocrypha materials similar to what is gathered together here. For example, 1 Sam. 2:1-10. Hannah begins her song: “My heart exults in the Lord, My strength is exalted in the Lord; My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in thy salvation.”

  • Another option is that Luke wrote the song for Mary to say.
  • Still another, less supported, suggestion is that Elizabeth might have composed the piece; the “low estate” fits her barren, older position better.
  • Or perhaps this was composed by some Jewish Christians, and added into the infancy stories by Luke.
  • A final option is that Mary herself is to be credited with writing the song. If so, considering how young she was, she certainly would have been well informed about Israelite experience and hope. A 1912 Roman Catholic official statement does attribute the song to her. Whatever the origin, it can be examined and repeated as an expression of Mary’s utter joy or thanksgiving – for her conception of the Messiah, – for her hope in redemption through God–redemption for the poor Israelite remnant, those she represented.

In that praise, prophetic call, and hope we may join.

The song’s thought development can be examined on two levels: the general and particular. In a particular sense one woman, Mary, represents, but she also speaks for herself. She delights in knowing that God has remembered to redeem her. More generally, she speaks for the poor ones, or Anawim as they have been called.

Some explanation of these Poor Ones is useful. Originally, the term designated the physically poor–the sick, downtrodden, widows, and orphans. Zeph. 3:12 offers a wider reference: “For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of Yahweh.” The Anawim were known for their intense Temple piety. They were faithful at prayer and at sacrifice. For them, poverty was leavened by piety. They experienced communal sharing of goods. They knew persecution.

The Poor Ones are those who can not trust primarily their own might. They know helplessness, its pain and its gift. They are those who rely ultimately on God. They are those who regarded themselves as the remnant of Israel.

The poor ones–not the great, selfish power people–delight in promise. God’s mercy toward Israel as a nation, toward Mary as a person, is good. To be given ultimate praise. The opposite of the poor ones were not simply the rich, but the proud–tose self-sufficient, those showing little need of the Divine. As Hannah had spoken for the poor ones, so many represented them, hopeful and faithful.

Let’s look more particularly at the content of the song. First, the term magnificat. We probably think first of magnify: to enlarge or expand. Or one can associate the idea of talking in and helping another to comprehend or understand, in this case, what all God’s greatness includes. This song title also means to exalt, glorify, or praise. The context of Mary’s joy is God’s gift of a child, her conception. Childbirth was perceived as a sign of God’s kindness, as a triumph of life over death, as a sign of the new beginning.

What for Mary was honor to birth was also good news for a people. They could anticipate one who would save or restore. What for Mary was a personal longing, she was able to personify for the poor ones. Her personal happiness, or being blessed, was transformed into vindicating or asserting rights for a whole people. In spite of suffering and oppression, she claimed that justice will come, that injustice will be righted.

For Mary to say “My soul magnifies or my spirit exults” means that her whole being owns the salvation to come. For the small, supposedly insignificant ones to welcome and be convinced of that disturbed the great, or supposedly powerful ones. Those with status–gained at the expense of others–never welcome convinced, autonomous cries from the “have nots.” But that’s what justice and injustice are all about. And Mary was audacious enough to know that salvation was hers, to unapologetically claim it, to thereby deny the control of others over her.

Mary is further described as a “lowly handmaid” or female slave, as one who “from this day all will call blessed.”

Her external condition can be described by poverty, persecution, and peasant class. From an obscure village, she and her people knew oppression. Her internal state was that of humility and willingness. She was willing to risk and comply with an Unknown future directed by a Known Presence. Of little repute, her worth was not to be measured by standard criteria. Freed from authorities named by the world, she had one Author. To that God she offered piety. She waited for God–for the God of justice, and the justice of God.

“From this day all will call me blessed.” Because God has done great things for me, for women, for the poor, for all repeatedly demeaned. All will call me blessed, or fortunate, or deeply happy because they:

  • Recognize my state of willingness to cooperate in the Divine plan,
  • Recognize the integrative experience of birthing–the togetherness of emotion, will, spirit, and desire; the unity of will and trust–
  • Recognize that I will be profoundly impacted by my child, that my child will be profoundly impacted by me. From her, the child will be prepared to go forth to revolutionary action. From him, the mother will be affirmed in believing in the priesthood of all believers.

All will call her blessed because of her direct access to the Almighty. Liberated from worldly authority of men and rulers, she demonstrates devotion only to the will of God. Mary’s role and vocation are not dependent on her husband. Now did she need to renounce marriage to fulfill her central mission: fully redeemed, she would be fully responsible for making good news authentic, for helping it happen.

For all to call her blessed reminded the hearers of Leah’s expression after birthing a child: “Happy am I. For the women will call me happy.” (Gen 30:13) Or, they might have recalled Mal. 3:12 in which the group or nation was told by God’s messenger that, in the end time: “all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight…” For Mary, being blessed was a condition. Not a statement calling for worship or veneration of her, it congratulates or recognizes her state of readiness to comply with or express obedience to and faith in the God of justice. May we, in our day, bless Mary.

Concerning some of God’s qualities that are focused here or God’s actions that are portrayed, we start with “Holy the name.”

The way by which the Divine is made known is holy. And the mercy is everlasting. People can start anew in hope. Qualities of mercy, power, and holiness are to be distinguished from actions identified, but they are interrelated. The qualities become the personal motivation for praise. To know God’s strength or God’s power is to know God’s holiness or God’s Otherness. With God, the ordinary and the transcendent overlap. To know God requires that one work toward justice. To hinder justice reflects on one’s relationship with the Divine.

This song reveals that Mary has knowledge of God, that she extends the mercy of God on to others.

The joy of birth symbolizes mercy. What a woman anticipates becomes. Expecting is fulfilled beyond what one imagines. Mutual dependence of being human expresses mercy.

A prime “great thing” or way in which divine power has been shown finds expression in: God routs the proud; God pulls down princes while exalting the lowly; God fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty handed.

God has done this, at least Mary fully expects it to be completed. God will rout the proud of heart: those who ignore the point of view of others; those who induce in others a sense of inferiority, who discourage them from aspiring to all within their potential. The proud achieve their greatest destructiveness in diminishing self-trust and self confidence in those they oppress. Hear then the triumphant anger of those suppressed: God will rout the proud and powerful.

We recall “How beautiful the feet…of those who preach the gospel.” Here we see how beautiful is the anger of those who have awakened to how justice has been denied them. How beautiful when they take themselves seriously and value their own purpose. Precisely this is what Mary is doing here–assuring the people that a new order–coming with the birth of the Messiah within her–dawn! For those who forced others to always be vulnerable, those who caused others to disrespect their own dignity, those insist on controlling others – a new order will be broken.

The new order or form of power calls for equalization. The achievement of this comes through removing “princes” of all sorts from their thrones, while exalting the lowly or those without worldly status. Removing the princes involves naming the princes’ acts and calling them sin. Such acts include: persuading people that only a few must lead or control; distributing unfairly natural resources; allowing a few with poverty to oppress those without; responding in fear toward those who dissent by increasing control over them.

Princes make the mistake of thinking of themselves and their control as god. But only by exalting the lowly and diminishing the mighty will the whole survive. Even though the princes will assault the lowly for claiming what is theirs, God will, or has, come to the lowly’s defense in sending a Redeemer. That’s what Mary says. That’s what Mary nudges the people to believe is true.

Further, she reminds them that God has filled the hungry and dismissed the rich empty handed. Her active protest against injustice expects redistribution. Like Dorthy Day and Mother Theresa, Mary, uninhibited declares: When the good is not experienced equitably, change becomes imperative. When the rich fail to see need, or feel little discomfort known by others God comes to address the situation.

“The liberation of all is necessary for the liberation of each.” (Callahan) Living acceptably for God is what constitutes fullness. The hungry are those who recognize need, the need to live righteously or justly. Those God fills.

Mary’s final statement celebrates the fact that God has come to help Israel. God helps or takes hold of in order to support. God is faithful, as promised–through mercy shown to ancestors past and descendents future. God’s control or centrality will arise, will be present, will abide.

That’s what Mary’s song is all about. That message no one can stifle forever, much as the proud, rich princes try.

That assertive faith, passed on to the Poor Ones, is Mary’s gift. It is her leadership. It is her discipleship. It is her prophecy. Of that she dare not be robbed. But we have tried. And we have to a large extent succeeded in robbing Mary of that which she both offers and deserves. Therein we have sinned, when we ignore Mary as our model for loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly.

The Magnificat’s last segment with its reference to Abraham leads me to raise a further concern. Stated simply, I believe we should compare and value similarly Abraham of the Old Testament and Mary of the New. Each was foundational. Without the faith and willing consent of each, God would have needed other plans or people. What Abraham committed himself to, Mary committed herself to.

Like Abraham (Gen. 18:3), Mary found favor with God (Lk 1:30).

Like Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) Mary is a source of blessing for ans is blessed by all nations (Lk. 1:42, 48).

Like Abraham (Gen. 15:6) Mary is praised for her faith in the promise that by a miracle, she would have a child (Lk. 1:45).

Just as Abraham, one man, had received the promises at the beginning on behalf of the entire nation, so one woman, Mary, received the fulfillment of those promises on behalf of the new community is a beginning step toward understanding justice.

We have been ever so ready to accept Abraham as the father of a people whom we claim as a religious heritage. But we have been ever so skeptical of valuing Mary as mother of that same heritage in its new creation, or as fullness to the old. We can value or credit Abraham without venerating or worshipping him. Why can’t we respond similarly to Mary? Granted, we repeatedly hear of the generations of Fathers–Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the ten sons or tribes–while no corresponding sequence of generations of Mary’s daughters gets Sunday School drill. This follows, of course, from the fact that instead of God’s people being one nation or focused in certain descendents, the new covenant through Jesus includes all peoples. Dare we think of Mary as mother, as the first disciple of her child the Liberator?

I offer this as one response to the message of justice in the Magnificat. I wish to study and reflect on the idea further myself. At the least, I hope we are receptive to exploring how this might offer us all greater wholeness.

Mary’s Magnificat then is: a hymn celebrating justice and social revolution, a hymn celebrating God’s presence and process, a hymn celebrating birth–joy in conception, reverence in anticipation, a hymn celebrating liberation: liberation for those minimized (and maximized) in society; liberation for those marginalized by people with power to do so; liberation for those who believe imbalances will be upset; liberation for those who credit the Divine with mercy and remembering.