Magnificat: God-Seeing, God-Identifying, God-Bearing Praise
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior… he hath showed strength with his arm; he has put down the mighty from their seat; exalted the humble and meek; filled the hungry with good things; sent the rich away empty; remembered his promise of mercy.
What a magnificent song in a scene brimming with life. A woman of an ancient covenant pronounces the arrival of a new covenant, and another woman – herself the ark of that covenant – vibrates with the joy of angels at the work of their ‘Hosannas!’
Of course, Mary’s wonder is not that she is unique in nature but that she is uncommon in her fruition of our universal human nature. We are all called like Mary, to summon the courage and docility, the true aliveness, to allow Christ to be born in and through us to the world. The Christian view already believes this life is conceived in us by baptism but, in fact, the Biblical view holds that it was breathed into us at our creation. But in Mary, Holy Wisdom has come to full term and we catch a glimpse of our own humanity when it is fully alive in God.
So, I come back to this beautiful scene and this ebullient song. Let me suggest that Mary did not sing because of the joy of the Annunciation and Visitation, nor out of naiveté, or because her world was less mired than ours. Rather, I think the Magnificat is like a veil pulled back from the window of Mary’s soul, revealing praise as the foundation, not the outcome, of a person bearing Christ. A heart of praise is the fertile ground that allows the seed of God’s new Life to grow. And, in its turn, the Magnificat demonstrates two necessary attributes of genuine, lively praise.
In Mary’s song we discover first of all that true praise emerges from a heart whose identity is knit entirely to God. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” says Mary. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” In these two short lines Mary tells us plainly the one thing that captivates her heart. Spiders build webs; the sun rises; children are curious; and Mary’s soul identifies with God. In the Common English Bible the translation is even more clear: In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior.
True praise begins with an identity hooked fastidiously in its depths, to God; to God’s nature, not its own; to God’s being, not its circumstances.
As my own identity sways with the appraisals of others or by weighing my life against the measures of the world, praise can falter. Or, if life is going well, we all know how easy it is to let the depths of our hearts rejoice in the good things we perceive God has done for us – the gifts, not God’s Nature. If our identity orbits around anything less than God, our hearts aren’t fully free to offer vibrant, Christ-bearing praise.
Here we must acquire a child’s earnest desire to imitate the deep Wisdom of this Holy Mother. This Advent we might venerate Mary by asking ourselves: What things less than God claim my identity or dampen my praise? If we are honest, we will each find those places in our heart; if we are alert we will notice that our culture hungrily seeks to keep us mired in things, deeds, and roles to define ourselves. Mary rises above all this to assure us that our true human nature is found in nothing but God alone. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we let go of all other identities, we open a new space in the womb of our hearts for the life of Christ to grow.
The second quality of Christ-bearing praise is found in the second part of the Mary’s song. How do we reconcile the past tense verbs of God’s actions in Mary’s song with its placement at the beginning of her nascent journey with the Christ? More arrestingly, how do we reconcile it with the reality we receive through our senses, our discourse, and the media. To put it bluntly, the song makes no ‘sense’. It seems scholars have considered various solutions to the problem and even the Church has beautifully tucked the words into Evening Office, making it a kind of consummate summary of the day where once there was a child’s naked faith. These solutions take for granted that this dissonance might actually reveal something profoundly beautiful about Mary’s heart: Her vision is as rooted in God as her identity. By way of contrast, I want to tell a story.
Some years ago, I tried to lead a group of people from various churches through a study of Julian of Norwich. Most people who have been introduced to Julian love her for passages like “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” In our study all was, indeed, going quite well… until we came to her third Revelation. In it, Julian writes about the working of God in the world and comes to the conclusion that “God is the center of all that is and the Doer of all that is done.” Here I paraphrase her eleventh chapter, where she continues:
I marveled at the sight with a mild fear, and thought: What is sin? For I saw truly that nothing is done by luck nor by chance, but all things by the foreseeing wisdom of God…This revelation compelled me to conclude that all that is done is well done, for our sweet Lord is the doer… I wished no longer to marvel in this but beheld our Lord [who] wants to have the soul converted unto the beholding of Him and generally of all his works [which sight brings] to great comfort the soul that has turned from paying attention to the blind judgments of man. God showed all this blissfully, meaning this, ‘See! I am God. See! I am in everything. See! I lead everything to the end I ordained it to from without beginning, by the same power, wisdom, and love by which I made it. How could anything possibly be amiss?’ So was the soul examined powerfully, wisely and lovingly, in this vision.
The whole Revelation is so nuanced and Julian does eventually speak plainly about sin. But, suffice it to say that our little group completely devolved at this point! Accounts of Sandyhook and other atrocities were flooding the news. In the face of this, the group simply could not forbear the notion of God as the doer of all that is done, never lifting his hand from his works.
So what had gone wrong?
In that group our identities were, on the whole, deeply rooted in God. However, I’ve since come to think that unlike Mary, it was our vision that was not sufficiently grounded in the Divine Nature. The second half of the Magnificat highlights this holy seeing. It is the mystical vision in faith that grows from long meditation on the character of God.
Julian’s revelation shares this sight. Yet her words also honestly portray how difficult it is for most of us to accept the vision. ‘I was compelled,’ Julian writes, ‘God wants the soul to be converted…the soul was powerfully examined…’ For Mary as well, there was that one time, when she went to get Jesus and bring him back from the crowd, afraid it would all end badly. We think it’s easier for mystics like Julian and especially Our Lady and with this thought we forestall our own choice. Our practice must grow to enfold us in the lineage of these women for whom the vision of God enveloped and informed the images with which the world assails us, not the other way around.
When our experience of the world shows only chaos, waste, and wilter, it is a real and rigorous act of faith to proclaim a Magnificat. Faith is a kind of cultivated sight by which a Christ-bearer can actually come to see what others barely dare to hope. Two worlds are ours, the one of wreckage and the one of Love. They mingle around us like the wheat and tares. We must daily acknowledge both with rigorous honesty, but we must anchor our hearts in the faith-churned vision of God’s work alone.
We’ve all experienced times when our identity is anchored in God without an equally steadfast vision of Him. One becomes discouraged, cynical, combative, anxiously busy, or pietistically withdrawn. Yet, this is not the stance of a Christ-bearer. Jesus had the capacity to bring his identity all the way into the marketplace precisely because his vision never strayed from the bosom of the Father. I have no doubt that the human man Jesus learned that disposition at the knee of his mother. I have no doubt that the life of Christ mystically conceived in each of us desires to grow and enable us to do the same.
The words of Mary of Nazareth when she received good tidings, must become the ethos of the heart in every circumstance. Just imagine: as Mary flees she hears behind her the cries of mothers whose infants have been slaughtered by the world seeking her Son. Her heart turns toward theirs as she whispers a life-giving Mystery: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Another time, she discovers her Son is not in the caravan returning from Jerusalem and her heart sinks with dread. In her motherly worry still there is that trembling prayer: God has looked with favor on his lowly servant… And of course, there is that day, beneath the cross. Blood drips from her Son’s pierced side, and at last the sword has pierced her heart also. Human anguish steals the breath from her lungs. She cannot form words, yet weeping in every cell of her being is that haunting song: from this day forth, all generations will call me blessed.
Praise like this is a costly act of resistance against the death dealing cynicism of the world. One must lovingly surrender her sense of things to the vision of faith. Yet, this allegiance to the character of God against fear and despair is a precious gift among us. With a Magnificat heart, the seed of God can be born anew, even at the foot of the cross. Even there, praise proclaims, “love can win, love has won, even here, God Is.”
The Church offers us the Magnificat as an evening hymn, but what if we clothed ourselves at the start of each day with its message? Then, when housing is unsure? Or our own bodies begin to betray our aspirations? When our resolve against an addiction or compulsion buckles? When the tiny seeds of our ministries seem to drown in a tidal wave of need? Or perhaps just after we’ve watched the news… Alongside our honest bewilderment and broken hearts may we whisper to God with love and faith the whole of Mary’s song: In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior. May that song burrow deep within us, beyond all the negativity that hounds us. And may it shine forth from us as the indestructible life of Christ to the world.
It was Mary’s capacity to identify with God and to rest her vision on His eternity amidst our wretchedness, that was the ark of salvation for mankind. We need that ark now and Christ aches to be born in our world anew. This is truly the hope of our one calling, to which end I leave you with the words of Caryll Houselander, a laywoman mystic of the Church, like Julian, like Mary. She wrote The Reed of God as a meditation on Our Lady, during her own time’s contemporary crisis: WWII. She notes, ‘It is a moment in which the world needs great draughts of supernatural life, needs the Christ-life to be poured into it, as truly and as urgently as a wounded soldier drained of his blood needs a blood transfusion. Only Christ-bearers can restore the world to life and give humanity back the vitality of love. No league or conference or committee or group can put life into the world: it can only be born into the world, and only individuals can give birth.’
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that our identity and vision may be grounded in the Creator, and we may be made radiant bearers of Christ. Amen.
posted December 22, 2017 by Adwoa Lewis-Wilson
Adwoa Lewis-Wilson is a woman in her latter thirties, who has felt sought by Wisdom in many ways, primarily anchored in the Judeo-Christian tradition. With six years vowed as an oblate of a contemplative monastic order, she has explored living this path of contemplative practice as well as leadership roles in parish and monastic settings.
Adwoa is actively listening for how the Spirit of abundance and unity is manifested in places of personal and corporate poverty. She is discerning how to respond to an inner conviction that contemplative presence to self and others, through the path of darkness, is necessary to the transfiguration of our times and the manifestation of the unitive among us. Adwoa is grateful to have participated in four Wisdom offerings at Hallelujah Farm since the fall of 2016, and attended the Wisdom Ingathering Stonington, Maine, 2017.