A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Pondering the Magnificat

by Sue Jones

by Sue Jones

I read somewhere recently that Mary is a symbol of the work for social justice and the Magnificat is her song of social protest. I have always thought that Mary was a person, a woman who is the Mother of God and the Magnificat an out pouring of a holy woman’s love for God.

If any virtue can be associated with such a heavenly outburst it surely would be love. It seems to me that the setting and mood alone are all wrong for this song to be about social protest. Social protest needs an audience. If the Magnificat, when uttered, was meant to be a rallying call for all time for Christians to unite in social protest against the world’s injustices surely the setting would have been more public and the mood more aggressive.

As it stands it is set in a family home and issues forth from a bit of feminine gossip about God between two pregnant, probably tired but happy women. When Mary utters the Magnificat she is utterly full of the presence of God. Though nothing was taken away from Mary’s humanness, indeed much was added, I wonder if she was completely aware of what she was saying. Whatever categories she mentioned-- rich/poor, mighty/lowly-- her outburst does not seem to give them the political edge they need for protest. I cannot see any party line being pushed here but rather a woman who chooses to praise God’s wisdom and generosity.Seedbed

When I read the account of the Annunciation I find a woman who though bewildered asks sensible questions, a woman who seems to be somewhat in control of her side of the talk going on between God’s messenger and herself. It seems to me that after the Angel leaves Mary her life begins to be overtaken by joy which has taken root in her soul and begins to shoot.

Mary, who is carrying the person of Jesus Christ in her body, makes a four day journey. God’s news for the world is busting out of her. She goes to someone she knows, a cousin, and shares her news in a domestic situation. Joy bursts forth in John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb, then in Elizabeth herself and all this joy reaches its zenith in Mary’s Magnificat.

The whole story of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Magnificat is a hymn to feminine love. This is a lowly, humble, obedient love which can be lived by anyone male or female, though it appeals perhaps more to women if one looks at a typical Sunday congregation. Because it can do more than one thing at a time it is well suited to lay life and our calling to mission and holiness. Theoretically it can be lived by a rich or a poor person though the poor person tends to have a needy dependency on God’s wisdom and generosity which a rich person has probably outgrown. Jesus Christ would have learned about this sort of love from Mary. The gospels record it and he chose freely to live it on Calvary. The essence of this love is self-sacrifice which often causes a person to suffer for the sake of establishing God’s kingdom of love on earth.

This virtuous, earthy love sustains and nurtures the inner life of the Church. It is most comfortable in domestic settings. The home, the domestic church, is the garden, the seed bed where this love takes root and is tilled through everyday life. In Mary we have a model of this love. She is a holy woman who has lived the given circumstances of her life without complaint. Rather than complain or campaign for a better life she has invited God into those circumstances so that she may love her life as it is. And of course God raises up this lowly life because he loves it. It delights him so much he finds a home in it.

When the soil of the domestic church is well tilled feminine love does what it does best. It evangelises the Church in lowly ways. To enable all baptised people to live this tilling, evangelising life as we ought the Church gives us what older Catholics know as a conversion life. It is a continual turning away from sin towards love. Mary had no need to live a conversion life because she was not tainted with Original Sin. Yet she is the Mother of the conversion life. The Church teaches us that this tilling life of conversion will bring us to holiness and friendship with God at the same time as it predisposes the world to be attracted to the life of Jesus Christ.

Mary the First Evangelist

Mary the First Evangelist

Conversion life begins with baptism. Other sacraments are added along the way to help us live out our baptismal vows until the day of our death. The Church also gives us the virtues which when dug into the soil enrich and ennoble our tilling. When we stop living our baptismal vows we stop tilling, we begin to think of ourselves as the converted. When the parish priest preaches a home truth to us and we do not like it we say amongst ourselves, “Father is preaching to the converted.”

Feminine love does not exist in the past tense. It cannot be institutionalised, programmed and channelled for purposes other than establishing God’s kingdom of love. However because this lowly tilling life is so sensitive to God’s plan for the world it is also vulnerable to the world’s ridicule. It needs to be nurtured, to be almost secretly upheld by the priesthood and husbands so that through motherhood it may take root in the hearts of mere babies.

A woman who in difficult circumstances chooses to have a baby and nurture that life at home through early childhood evangelises that baby whether she is aware of that or not. A woman who has given up her career and has freely chosen to be a stay at home mum ‘tells’ her baby something about love that the world cannot tell it. The child at the breast, whose mother is always there, soft and warm, nurturing and feeding, has a little soul. That soul senses through a mother’s self-sacrificing love that a mother’s love reflects God’s love for the world. In an increasingly selfish world this is a monumental, Godly message about love and free will paradoxically squeezed into a baby’s soul.

From time to time in the history of the church feminine love needs renewing at a radical level so that God may favour the Church and find a home amongst us.  This renewal is not so much about modernising our methods of conveying the Christian message about Jesus Christ to the world, then deciding who will do what, then working to make everybody and everything equal. The institutional Church is good at that sort of organisation, leadership and issue argument. It is more about the grass roots, messy business of persons bringing the person of Jesus Christ into the world. This is where feminine love takes the lead in Catholic life. Paradoxically it leads best and most fruitfully from a position behind what the world perceives as the most powerful and important aspects of the Catholic Church.

The Magnificat does have an edge. It best suits the person bringing Jesus Christ into the world rather than the person battling the political issues of the day. Evangelists like Mary do not come out of nowhere. They are borne forth from a Church in which is hidden the feminine, graceful steel of God’s love and favour. When that love bursts forth from a person into the world, the world takes notice because in that person is a spirit intelligent, holy, subtle, active and incisive, irresistible and beneficent.    


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