Monday 25 August 2014

What God Said to Mary and What Mary Said to God: The Magnificat Part 1

You will find, in Catholic links, resources, books, discourses and literature far better explorations and meditations on the Visitation of Our Lady to St Elizabeth, her cousin, than I can give. Because I am restricting myself to what the Blessed Virgin Mary said to God and what God said to Our Lady, in order to show you that she is indeed like no other creature to have lived, I will not be referring to the words of St Elizabeth to the Mother of God greatly in this post. Aside from this, I have noted St Elizabeth's bold acclamation of Mary as "blessed" and the "mother of my Lord" in the previous piece which should prove beyond reasonable doubt that Mary is who the Church says she is.

That Elizabeth sees in Mary the fulfillment of God's promises is clear, as is the miraculous nature of this maiden's encounter with Elizabeth. Where Mary is, there are miracles! St John the Baptist leaps at the sound of her voice, not merely the presence of his Lord. Mary is 'blessed', Elizabeth deems herself not worthy to receive the Mother of God and Mary, who has believed, is blessed because in her womb all of God's promises will be fulfilled because Jesus is the Saviour. How Elizabeth knows all this...God alone knows!

With that said, the Magnificat is not, so it would appear, directly announced by Our Lady, to God. It is announced 'about Him' to us. It is the praise of God announcement to mankind. It is a hymn of praise to God, but something cried aloud by Mary in the presence of her cousin, in reply to St Elizabeth's offering of praise to the Virgin when she said...

'Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.'

The Magnificat is delivered by the Virgin immediately in response to these words from her cousin. It does not, on paper, look like a prayer. Yet it is sung by monks in monasteries. The Chant of the Church is prayer.

And Mary said:
My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him. He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy:As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

This is a canticle that reveals this biblical figure's complete immersion in the Books and Psalms of the Old Testament and the God Who is revealed within them. A very good resource providing evidence for this can be found here, in a guide that enables readers to go to those parts of Scripture cited in Our Lady's hymn that form its construction, albeit in a hymn which Mary 'said'. Whatever else Mary said to Elizabeth, or to anyone else really, is hidden from us during her visit for three months to her cousin. We must ask why it is that the Gospel writer has included only these words from Our Lady. It is the clear intent of the writer to only include words of Our Lady which enable us to reflect and meditate on her role in Salvation history and upon her. The less that is said, the more intense our meditation on her will be. The less someone says, the more mysterious their presence can be.

It is clear from the useful resource linked to above that Our Lady's hymn is composed of parts of Psalms and parts of Scripture, many of which, interestingly, involve women, God's favour, childbearing and the constant theme of salvation and deliverance. Our Lady has not written this down on paper and prepared it read it to her cousin, but the hymn has come straight from her Immaculate heart, a heart that meditates day and night upon the Scripture, straight from her purest soul, a soul immerse in God Himself and acutely aware of His Presence and His indwelling in her most sacred womb.

'My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour'

The song seems to form a comprehensive summary of God's promises and His deeds spoken in the Old Testament that indicates her words form the completion - or at least the beginning of God's complete work - in the Salvation of Israel and the first words of this canticle makes her soul's solitary boast - God Himself. Our Lady is saying that her very being praises God. Other biblical figures have said it before her, but it would seem none in quite the same way.

The first thing she does is give praise to God, for what, through her, He will accomplish. Her soul 'magnifies' God. The word 'magnify' can mean to praise and extol, or to enhance, augment, or make more visible that which already exists. Not accidentally, perhaps, both meanings of this word can easily be used to illustrate Our Lady whose every word and deed, every prayer, shows forth her Son and His glory. She mirrors as the Moon the very brightness of the Sun. Men cannot look directly into the Sun for fear of damaging their eyes. Men can look upon the Moon even if its radiance is bright indeed and see its admirable beauty. It is the Sun that causes it and Mary knows that all her virtue and brilliance comes from her Son.

The closest parallel to Our Lady's exclamation is from the Book of Samuel in which Hannah prayed...

My heart hath rejoiced in the Lord, and my horn is exalted in my God: my mouth is enlarged over my enemies: because I have joyed in thy salvation.

The rest of Hannah's prayer forms a pattern and has a content very similar in themes to that cried aloud by the Blessed Virgin, but it should be noted that for Hannah, because of God's works, 'My heart hath rejoiced'.

Interestingly, Hannah's bold claim of rejoice in God takes the form of the past tense. Mary's praise of God is made in the first instance in the present continuous. Why? Because she is continuously praising God in her soul. Hannah says that God has made her heart very happy. Mary says that her very soul magnifies the Lord. Hannah has 'joyed' in His Salvation. Mary's spirit, similarly, 'hath rejoiced in God, my salvation'. We see then that these things, while similar, are not the same. Mary's hymn connotes a continuous praise of God in the soul and a purity in reflection of the Divine that the ordinary man and woman does not enjoy.

It is also important to recognise that Mary calls God 'my salvation'. The Church does not suggest that Mary is so honoured by the Church because she was perfect and sinless of her own doing, but that God was her salvation too. Mary, however, is different to us in as much as all the merits of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of her Divine Son were applied to her soul in a special manner from the first moment of her conception, making her spotless and holy, without blemish, in such manner that we call her Immaculate. You will see plainly that Scripture does not deny this.

The Soul and the Spirit

A fascinating aside that gives us an insight into Mary is given by her exclamation that not only does her soul 'magnify' the Lord but her 'spirit', too, has 'rejoiced in God, my salvation.' There appears to be debate in which scholars debate the difference, or if any exist, between the 'soul' and the 'spirit' of man. Interestingly, Mary says 'And' my spirit has rejoiced. Both Mary's soul and her spirit are then in harmony in the work of praise, extolling and rejoicing in God, her Saviour. Her spirit 'hath rejoiced' while her soul 'magnifies' the Lord.

What reason has Mary had that her spirit has rejoiced while her soul magnifies the Lord? Need this detract in any way from what the Church says of Our Lady? If her soul always magnifies the Lord would not her spirit always rejoice in God her salvation? Truly, her soul will magnify the Lord even when He is on the Cross, but her spirit will not always rejoice - not, for example, when her spirit will be crushed by seeing her Son on the Cross and she will be Our Lady of Sorrows as 'a sword pierces her heart also.' For the time being, the news for Mary is news of abundant joy to her spirit because she is pregnant with the Son of God, the Salvation of Israel, but for her spirit, it will not always be rejoicing, even if her soul will always magnify the Lord. Likewise, her divine Son will always be in perfect conformity and obedience and praise to His Eternal Father during His Ministry on Earth, but his 'spirit' will become 'troubled unto death' as His Passion approaches.

Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

Mary goes on to give two explanations for the cause of her joy. There are two uses of the word 'because' which answer why Mary's soul magnifies the Lord and why her spirit has rejoiced in God, her salvation. The first is because the Lord has regarded her humility. A handmaid is a female servant. She describes herself as God's servant therefore and that God has regarded the humility of this servant of His. God has regarded her. God has looked upon her, has related Himself to her and in particular, to her humility. Mary's relation to God is always one of self-abasement. Only the abased soul can magnify God, or reflect Him and Mary does it to perfection, so much so in fact, that she has won God's favour to the highest degree. Mary's perfection is Mary's humility, Mary's humility is Mary's perfection, for she unceasingly relies not on her own self, or her own status, or on her goods, but on God, the goods of God, God's very Being. Her being relies on God's Being to the extent that God Himself now dwells physically in her womb. And for this reason, 'all generations shall call me blessed.'

The question is, can we go even further than this? It is certainly Catholic tradition to believe that Our Lady, while on Earth, was a ceaseless intercessor for the Church, for Israel and for the whole World. We will go further into Our Lady's intercessory role further and deeper as we learn more of the words ascribed to her in Scripture, but for now, let us pause and consider Our Lady's explanation for her soul's happiness.

Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

Can we go so far as to say that Our Lady is truly like Hannah, the woman who prayed for a child, that Our Lady's very prayer, before she conceived the Son of God in her womb, influenced God's entrance into the world even if the entire initiative belongs to Him? Mary, quite deliberately, we can say, likens herself to the biblical figure of Hannah. Hannah prayed for a child and God granted her request. In this biblical figure, God regards the 'humility of his handmaid'. In abasing herself, in her humiliation, God grants to her the child she will call Samuel. What did Mary pray for, before she received within her Tabernacle, the Eternal Word?

With confidence, we can say that Mary prayed unceasingly for the Salvation of Israel. Can we say that it is Mary's prayer for the Salvation of the World, for the Messiah to come, for God to establish His reign on Earth, for God to redeem Israel, which is so sweet to God and admirable to God that He grants her request and asks her to become the Mother of God? God chooses Mary from all eternity. He chooses her to be totally free from sin. He chooses her to choose Him always. Her will is always His will. Her longing for God, however, is also the longing for the redemption of Israel because Mary is not indifferent to the world's sorry plight. Is Mary such a figure as Hannah, but who in praying so fervently for God's Kingdom to come on Earth, is granted the ultimate privilege, of being the Mother of God Himself because of her perfect prayer? For it is for this reason that Mary will be henceforth 'blessed by all generations'. Has Mary's prayer, even before the Archangel Gabriel saluted her, won God's favour to such an extent that it pleased Him to answer her prayer for the Salvation of the human race, a prayer initiated by Himself in his most obedient daughter?

Let us recall what the Archangel said to Mary.

'And the angel said to her, Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with God; and behold, thou shalt conceive in the womb and bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus.'

Hannah's prayer for a child finds favour with God. Mary likens herself to Hannah. Mary's prayer has found favour with God and immediately after she is told that she has found favour with God, the Angel announces that she shall conceive, bear a son and call his name Jesus. 'The Almighty has done great things for me', says Mary and 'holy is his name'. She already knows that His Name is holy and knows his name. His name is Jesus, the holy name of Jesus.

This would be a bold thing to suggest. We know that Our Lady did not ask God that she may be the Mother of the Eternal Word and yet we do believe that her prayer, even before the Word became flesh, was efficacious more than any other intercessor and that she was, before, during and after her pregnancy with God the Son, the one who was always heard by God. Mary says that she rejoiced because God has regarded the humility of his handmaid, but this phrase reminds us of Hannah who prayed for a child. God granted her request because of her abasement. Could it be that Mary's prayer, which is always initiated by God in his perfect and sinless creature, has co-operated with that Plan of Salvation that what she prayed for is granted, through her?

It goes without saying, too, that Protestants can cite Scripture as much as they want, but if they overlook that Our Lady acknowledges that 'all generations shall call me blessed', they overlook the Scriptural foundations upon which we Catholics pray the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria. In this prayer we say,

'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

Every time this prayer is said, it serves to remind God to look upon the greatness of Our Lady, to hear her prayers for us, and to spare us who merit so much punishment, implores her motherly aid to we who fight the good fight and to bring us close to Jesus, her Divine Son. Forgive us, O Almighty Father, and look not at our sins, but at Your Son who ransomed us by his blood and look, too, upon the sinless perfection of Your Daughter, the sinless Queen of Heaven and Mother of God the Son!

'Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.' 

He that is mighty is God. The second cause of Our Lady's joy, having exclaimed that God has regarded her humility, praises God's might, God's power, his Omnipotence. We know that the omnipotence of God means that it was God's initiative to descend into the womb of the Virgin from Heaven, God's wonderful plan to become Incarnate of this maiden. He has, in her words, done great things 'to Mary'. God has not done something 'for her'. God has done something 'to her'. What has God done 'to Mary'. We know that by saying 'be it done to me according to thy word' to the Angel Gabriel, that Mary has assented to God's design that she should be the Mother of God. Yet God has done something 'to her'. And more than one thing. Note that God has not done a 'great thing' to Mary. Mary is talking here of 'things' in the plural. Other than coming down from Heaven to dwell in her womb, what has God done?

There is more than one thing that God has done to Mary, more than taking up His Residence in her sacred womb. What? The answer could very well be that He has made her Immaculate from the very first moment of her being. There could be other 'great things' that God has done to Blessed Mary, ever virgin, but most biblical figures do not relate of what God has done 'to them' but 'for them'. That Our Lady says there are 'things' God has done 'to me' certainly opens up theological speculation into what these 'things' may be among which may very well be to make her 'full of grace' and without every stain of sin, since that is what the Angel Gabriel said to her.

The first half of the Magnificat is about nothing else but God and Mary and the relationship between herself and God. Her soul magnifies the Lord. Her spirit rejoiced in God her Saviour because he has regarded her humility, because he has done great things to her and his name is holy. Let us remind ourselves of the first half of the Magnificat.

My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name. 

Then let us be so bold as to translate it into language which is more digestable for us.

I ceaselessly praise God. My Saviour has made me happy because he admired his servant's humility because his omnipotence has done wonderful things to me and his name is holy.

Mary is holy. She ceaselessly worships and praises God. Her Saviour has made her happy because He looked upon his handmaid's humility because his omnipotence has done wonders to her and his name is holy. 

Why does Mary praise God continuously in her soul? We could easily remove some words and we would receive the answer more vehemently.

I ceaselessly praise God because his omnipotence has done wonderful things to me. 

I ask the Protestant sceptic of Catholic Truth to find another figure in the Bible who says anything even vaguely similar to himself or herself as does this biblical figure. Clue: you won't fine one because Mary is completely different to any other biblical figure. We see, plainly, that Mary is not concerned about Mary, but about what the Trinity has done to Mary. The Church says Mary was preserved from Original Sin and that her Conception was Immaculate as well as defining the miraculous nature of the birth of her Son which was free from all pain and before, during and after which, she remained a pure virgin.

Protestants deny it, yet it can easily be discerned from Scripture that Mary herself indicates that she is radically different to others and that she is Immaculate. Mary's soul magnifies the Lord because the Omnipotence of God has preserved her from all stain of sin. Only a sinless soul can magnify the Lord in the present continuous tense. When was Mary preserved? She does not say, but you can only be preserved from all stain of sin from conception, otherwise you have not been preserved from it at all. She is something special and wondrous because God has done special and wondrous things to her.

She credits God for her humility and for why He has chosen her and attributes her humility to God. He has chosen her to be Mother of God, answered all of her prayers, made her spotless and created her Immaculate from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, St Anne. How? We do not understand. All that the Angel has said is that, 'All things are possible to God'.

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