On the Magnificat

O VIRGIN of virgins, how shall this be? for neither before thee was any seen like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? the thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

  • O Virgo virginum



Tonight marks the end of Sapientia-tide, the period of the great “O Antiphons.” In the Anglican Breviary, following an old English custom, the final antiphon for Sapientia-tide is O Virgo virginum, and on Lauds is accompanied by another particular antiphon at the Benedictus: “Behold, all things are fulfilled which were spoken by the Angel of the Virgin Mary.” Due to the way the two antiphons are coupled on Dec. 23rd in the Anglican Breviary, we find ourselves in a rather heightened encounter with the person of the Virgin Mary and her role in the event of Advent. This peculiarity in the Anglican Breviary comes to me as a pleasant surprise, as it gives occasion to bring my attention to what very well may be my favourite prayer found in scripture: Mary’s song of praise, popularly known as the Magnificat. Although I have known the Magnificat for most of my life, having been baptized a Catholic when I was a child, it is when I re-encountered the prayer through the Evening Prayer of the Book of Common Prayer that it left a deep impression. As both the O Virgo virginum and the Benedictus antiphon are referring to the events surrounding the Annunciation as presented by the Gospel of Luke, lets move to the text.

After her encounter with the archangel Gabriel who announces that she will conceive the “Son of the Most High,” Mary hurries to visit Elizabeth, her relative, that also conceived a son. Elizabeth, knowing what has happened, greets Mary with joy and honour, saying “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (which, along with Gabriel’s salutation earlier, is the basis of the Ave Maria, also known as the “Hail Mary”). And in response to this, Mary, who has been lauded by both an angel and a senior member of her family as “full of grace,” and “blessed among women,” opens her mouth and begins what very well could be regarded as a truly radical prayer by directing our attention to God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my soul rejoices in God my Savior.”

This is the central key to understanding the role and importance of Mary – she is the person who, moreso than any other, directs our gaze to God, and this is an importance that is shaped both in her personal actions and her role as the person by which God entered into the world clothed in flesh. The second sentence of O Virgo virginum is to be read as Mary speaking to us, telling us not to marvel at her but the mystery of God that is at work using her as medium. It is when our understanding of Mary as the Mother of God who directs our attention to God begins to slip that the veneration of Mary flirts with an idolatry the begins to think Mary’s grace comes from her own being, but to disregard the indispensable role of Mary in the event of Advent is to lose sight of the historicity of Christ and inevitably flirt with Christological heresies that begin to forget and even reject that Christ truly was very God and very man. God was incarnate through Mary, and while of course this miracle took place by the will of God and no other, this does not change that God was born from Mary. There was nothing before like it, nor will there be anything like it again. And so we can hail, rightly, that Mary is full of grace and that the Lord is with her [Luke 1:28], and that she is blessed among women [Luke 1:42], and truly not only among women but of humanity entire.

Mary continues her praise and depicts a radical divine justice that upends the order of the world. The God her Savior is a God who scatters the proud, dethrones the mighty, and sends away the rich empty handed. Instead, he exalts the lowly just as he bestowed the lowly Mary with the highest honour, and fills the hungry with good things. There is no pretense of “equality” here in the liberal sense of all persons receiving the same thing, as if what is just is merely for all persons to get the same things and receive the same opportunities, regardless of context. The justice of God is particular, he is “preferential” to the marginalized, and he is not shy of showing that he will provide his grace to them over those in vain excess. The proclamation of God’s radical justice in the Magnificat is a prelude to the Beatitudes of Christ later in Luke, where Christ promises great rewards for the poor, hungry, and the reviled, and warns the rich, full, and flattered of coming justice. In relation to our day, God’s justice can be read as a radical equitability over and against the pretenses of a liberal capitalism that likes to believe what one has what one deserves, as if one’s riches (or lack thereof) directly correlates to how much “hard work” has been exerted. The Magnificat and the Beatitudes directly contradict the capitalist narrative that seeks to moralize the accumulation of wealth and render the poor not only further destitute by erasing our duty to care for them, but paint the poor as immoral. “As the poor are poor because they put themselves there, there is no duty to care for people that don’t help themselves” – it is precisely this capitalist claim that the Christian must reject, and this is taught to us through the Magnificat and the Beatitudes.

The radicality of a divine justice that upends the order of the world is something that we already see throughout the Psalms and the Prophets. But what becomes new through the Incarnation is that God himself becomes a participant within the worldly order, and this God does not enter into the world at a seat of power but manifests himself in a lowly estate. And through this the judge speaks for the lowly as one who participates directly within the life of the lowly – Christ identifies with and is identified as the poor (son of a carpenter), the hungry (forty days in the wilderness), the weeping (Lazarus, Mount of Olives), and the reviled (the Crucifixion).

Commentary about the commodification of Christmas into what is now an unapologetically grotesque site for acquisition and consumption abounds everywhere with more insight and clarity than I can provide here. Inane platitudes about putting the “Christ” back in Christmas, even if well meaning, is helpless and doesn’t really get anywhere. We cannot just gloss over the fact that this particular platitude often cares more about the mere restoration of the centrality of Christianity in our culture than highlighting the actual radicality of Advent. What is important here, it seems, is to turn our attention away from these cultural insecurities that conveniently distract our thought – after all, the entire “conversation” about the “Christianness” of Christmas still operates almost entirely within the capitalist commodification of the holiday anyway –  and look toward the miracle that is the coming of God into this world and the radicality of the justice he promises to us. To take Advent seriously is to be receptive to the will of God as Mary was (“Behold, I am a handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”), and in our day a part of what this means is to say No to the machinations of the political economy of late capitalism.

So, as we enter Christmas Eve, let us pray: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my soul rejoices in God my Savior.

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.


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