Mary’s Hymn of Praise (the Magnificat), contained in today’s Gospel reading, is the first of four hymns included in the infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel. The English translation obscures the melodic nature of the text.
The hymn is filled with messianic imagery and other ideas borrowed from Late Second Temple Judaism. It also presents a nagging contradiction.
The beginning of the Gospel reading tells us that Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth who, though past the usual childbearing age, was pregnant. It might seem strange that Mary, who had recently learned that she herself was pregnant, would undertake such a taxing journey. It appears all the stranger in light of the identity of her newly conceived child, the Messiah.
Mary’s seemingly unusual behavior was perfectly in keeping, however, with the social conventions of the time. Elizabeth, being the elder relative, was owed respect and deference by younger relatives, in this case, Mary. By traveling to visit her elder relative, Mary was expressing the humility required by the relationship and age differential between the two women.
Mary has always been a model of humility for Christians, and this is the source of the logical contradiction created by the Magnificat. The hymn can be interpreted as Mary proclaiming publicly her favored status before God; this would hardly qualify as an act of humility. As the old saying goes, “Humility is a badge you lose as soon as you put it on.” By proclaiming the uniqueness of her life and relationship with God, she makes herself appear as anything but humble. Obviously, the hymn must have a different meaning.
As I said above, the Magnificat is a hymn; it was sung by a congregation during a worship service. It was composed as a hymn of praise, sung by a congregation. Coincidentally, the hymn intends to serve a function somewhat analogous to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Mary traveled to see her elder relative as an act of deference; she owed respect to Elizabeth because of Elizabeth’s status of seniority in the extended family. In a similar manner, the congregation that sang this hymn in worship did so as an act of reverence toward God; at all times and places, the Church sings God’s praises as an act of deference to the One who saves us.
Rather than a hymn that expounds Mary’s admirable qualities, the Magnificat is properly interpreted to be a hymn that expounds God’s faithfulness, generosity, and graciousness. The Magnificat, then, serves as a pattern for all Christian worship and for the life of each disciple of Jesus. This presents yet another nagging contradiction.
Our culture tells us that, at the very least, we should be winners, if not the Greatest Of All Times. The suggestion that we should be lowly AND servants seems unpalatable if not repulsive. We live in a culture that proclaims worship of self, but we practice a religion that claims to worship God. Here, Mary offers an example worth imitating.
She could have easily excused herself from making the difficult journey from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s house in Judea. She had the perfectly valid excuse that she, too, was pregnant. She had the even more compelling excuse that her child would be the Savior sent by God. Instead of making excuses, Mary made the journey. She expressed appropriate deference to her elder relative. In doing so, she experienced the blessing of serving God and serving a beloved relative.
Like Mary, we must make a choice about what we value most. We must choose between worship of self and worship of God; only one option can be chosen. Worship of self is easy; it requires little effort and no repentance. Worship of God, on the other hand, is often challenging; it requires effort and demands selflessness.
There is one further way in which worship of God differs from worship of self. Worship of self gains us our own approval; worship of God gains us God’s approval. Today’s feast, the Assumption of Mary, celebrates God’s approval of Mary’s humility; that Divine approval was expressed in granting Mary an anticipatory share in the resurrection of Jesus. At our very greatest, it is impossible for human nature to grant itself a resurrected life freed from sin and death. For this reason, we worship not our own greatness but God’s greatness.