MARY’S MAGNIFICAT: A PERFECT MODEL OF PRAISE FOR BELIEVERS!
Properly understood Christianity offers the best form of life ever experienced in the world. This is so because of the testimonies of transformed persons in the world as a result of the activities of Jesus Christ and His twelve Apostles. So, if you look through the four corners of the earth you will surely see the landmarks of Christianity. There are personages called saints that have uniquely distinguished themselves by practicing the Christian way of life and the secret of their success is prayer. The Blessed Virgin Mary stands tallest as she is the New Beginning of Christianity and most of its elements – for example prayer. She is the new beginning because through her the mystery of the Incarnation (God became man-Jesus Christ) became a reality and the fruit is Christ that Christianity is all about. Our preoccupation in this write-up is to showcase Mary’s Magnificat as a perfect model of praise for believers. So, we shall be responding to questions like who is Mary? What is her Magnificat? What is prayer of praise and finally how does the Blessed Virgin’s Magnificat serves as a perfect model of praise for believers?
WHO IS MARY?
There are seven Marys mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible but we are concerned with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; the one Elizabeth exclaimed, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord come to me? (Lk. 1:43). Historically, Mary is a Jewish young woman, engaged to be married, from the backwater town of Nazareth in rural Galilee. It is important to begin with knowledge of Mary in order to unveil her worth, elicit appreciation of her person and her deep prayer life as exemplified by her Magnificat- her song of praise. More so, Mary is not well known, hence she is less respected let alone understood. Thus, Father Faber asserts that “Jesus is obscured because Mary is kept in the back-ground”[i] Let us begin to know the Blessed Virgin Mary right from her name which is her first mark of identity.
The name Mary (English) is derived from Hebrew – Myriam or Miryam meaning “‘sea of bitterness and sorrow,’ with sea meaning the depths of water and psyche as well as the sea connected to the moon and tides and seasons that are constant.”[ii] St. Louis de Montfort put it simply this way, “God the Father made an assemblage of all the waters and He named it the sea (mare). He made an assemblage of all His graces and called it Mary (maria).”[iii] Notice that the nature of a name personifies a person’s way of doing things. Can we quantify the water in a sea in the natural order or the graces of God in the supernatural order? The answer is NO! Nevertheless, God has generously endowed Mary with plenitude of graces and notice the angelic salutation, “Hail (Mary) full of grace! The Lord is with you.” (Lk 1:28). Mary also has made remarkable efforts to express her gratitude to God with all her heart and soul; so she stands as an example par excellence to demonstrate to us that though we are limited yet the best for God is possible in all things and in particular prayer. She established the essence of her name and person in her fiat that is associated with her divine motherhood vocation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38). Mary’s complete self-giving to the Lord is excellently displayed in her Magnificat that is our main item of discussion. So what is her Magnificat?
The Magnificat, taken from Luke’s Gospel (1:46-55), is the Blessed Virgin Mary’s spontaneous song/hymn of praise to the Lord. It is also known as the Canticle of Mary in the Liturgy of the Hours. It has had numerous musical settings from such composers as Palestrina, Bach and Mozart; however, it can be recited as well as sung. Its name comes from the first line of its text in Latin “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (“it praises”), translated in the first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The Magnificat is the hymn of Mary; her expression of praise and blessing; a divine canticle; Prayer with the power of God and Prayer filled with mystery. It is also a theological hymn; salvific hymn; Song of liberation; and an ecumenical song. Mary proclaims the Lord’s greatness with characteristic humility and grace and above all it is the embodiment of her spirituality. Her spirituality (i.e. a way of life or a way of living a life in the Spirit) is a “spirituality of praise” as we shall see very shortly. The question is how does it reflect praise as a form of prayer to God? Below is the Magnificat of our Lady:
My soul magnifies the Lord [1Sm 2:1]; And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; [Is 61:10]; Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid; [1Sm 1:11; Ps 113:7; Zep 3:12]; For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; [Jdt 15:10]; Because he who is mighty has done great things for me, [Ps71:19;126:2f]; and holy is his name; [Ps 111:9]; And his mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. [Ex 20:6; Ps 85:9; 103:17]; He has shown might with his arm, [Ps 98:1; Is 40:10]; He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. [Jb 5:12; Ps 33:10; 138:6]; He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. [Jb 5:11; Ps 75:8]; He has filled the hungry with good things, [Ez 34:29]; and the rich he has sent away empty. [1Sm 2:5; Ps 34:10f; 107:9]; He has given help to Israel, his servant, [Is 41:9] mindful of his mercy [Ps 98:3; Jer 31:3, 20]; Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever. [Gn 13:15; 22:18; Ps 132:11];
THE PRAYER OF PRAISE
It is given that prayer is an act of communication with God but this act of communication takes various forms, hence we have adoration (Ps 95:6), blessing (Eph 1:3), petition (Col 4:12), contrition (Lk 18:13), intercession (1Tm 2:1), thanksgiving (1Thess. 5:18) and praise (Eph 3:20-21). “Praise is the form of prayer which recognises most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS.”[iv] From the foregoing many people are led to consider and conclude that the prayer of praise is the “highest” form of prayer. Why? A prayer of praise is all about God. We ask for nothing, we seek nothing; we focus on nothing but God himself. The prayer of praise is as good as self-forgetfulness in God and God alone. Ideally, it matches with the very idea of what it means to be a Christian.
Does God want or need our praises? This fundamental question is imperative because many Christians struggle with it. Some have concluded that God must have a superego to want or need people to praise Him! The Church has an answer for them and for us: “You (God) have no need of our praise, yet our desire to (praise and) thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of (praise and) thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace…”[v] There is this saying that angels and saints in heaven praise God while men on earth adore God; and in the Book of Revelation (4; 7:11-12) the Church triumphant in the heavenly world is represented as continually living and praising God; but the Church militant also shares in this praise. It follows that in praising God she is already performing that service that she is destined to perform.[vi] Must God be grateful to us for doing what we ought to do? Certainly no! So, if we are privileged to praise God we should say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” (Lk 17:10).
Therefore, when we praise God we are only doing our legitimate duty and it benefits us instead of God. To drive the message home, contemplate a mother whose 5-year-old child hands her a drawing made especially for her. What is happening in that mother’s heart? Then magnify the tenderness of her heart a million times over and you still won’t be close to understanding how tender God’s heart is for us. And how much it must mean to Him for us to praise and adore Him, no matter how meagre our attempts. Then, let us jettison such thought of doing God a favour when we praise him. Note that the God of love, who is love, loves to be loved. Moreover, we were created for a relationship with Him: a love relationship. What else are we to do? But to Praise God for that! For all creation is summoned to praise God (Ps. 148: 1-14). Consequently, when God requires that we praise him, he is really inviting us to love and enjoy Him since love and joy is incomplete till it is expressed in praise. Listen to this: God says that we are the people whom He has formed for Himself to announce his praise (Is 43:21). Please go on now praising the Lord in all things and living a spirituality of praise irrespective of the challenges of the world that beset us. To live a life of praise is to have begun heaven while on earth as the Blessed Virgin Mary demonstrates via her Magnificat, a prayer of praise.
MARY’S MAGNIFICAT AS A PERFECT MODEL OF PRAISE
In order to appreciate Mary’s Magnificat as a perfect model of praise, we need to find out what it takes to offer praises to God and how Mary’s Magnificat beautifully exemplifies that. First and foremost it is important to note that it is not natural to pray let alone to praise God whom we do not see as we often see our parents, brothers, sisters and all those who wish us well. It goes to say that prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit whether infused or acquired. Anyway, here are some requirements for prayer of praise: knowledge of God and His attributes (Hos. 4:6, Mt 22:29); praising God from the soul (Lk 1:46-47) praising God from a humble heart (Lk 1:48); knowledge of God’s promises and proclaiming them when fulfilled (Lk 1:54-55; Rom 4: 18-21); acknowledging Him as the beginning and end of all we do for He is the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 22:13); Singing onto the Lord (Acts 16:25; Eph 5:18b-19); readiness to express thanksgiving (Lk 1:45-47); willingness to testify and echo God’s marvellous deeds in our lives irrespective of our state (1Thess 5:18; 1Tim 5:25); and strength of the soul to pray and to pray in the Spirit (Eph 6:18; Jude 20). Honestly the conditions necessary to praise God are endless but the question we have to ask ourselves is what our motivations for praising God are? For Mary it is God and God alone – Ps. 107:8, 15, 21, and 31.Can we find any or the entire prerequisite for praising God mentioned above in the Magnificat of Mary? Take for instance praising God from a genuine knowledge of our relationship with Him. All that Mary said in her prayer of praise started with how she saw herself in relationship to God. See Vs.48: “Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid” [1Sm 1:11; Ps 113:7; Zep 3:12]. This simple phrase is pregnant with meaning from Mary’s heart; a heart that is conscious of its true position in relation to God’s greatness. The result of her humility is a genuine response that set the stage for real worship of God through her prayer of praise – the Magnificat.
Furthermore, on her knowledge of God and His attributes, the Magnificat of Mary shows that the Lady knows God with a fervid intimacy. The proof of her knowledge of God and His attributes bears in her mastery of the scriptures. There is no gainsaying that she knew the Old Testament scripture by heart. Going through the Magnificat, we see Mary contrasted with the Pharisees and the Sadducees in Mt 22:29. Look at her knowledge of God: Vs. 47: my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (Is 61:10); vs. 49: the Mighty One… (Ps 71:19; 126:2f); vs.49: He has done great things for me (Ps 71:19; 126:2f); vs. 49: holy is His name (Ps 71:19; 126:2f); vs. 50: His mercy is from generation to generation… (Ex 20:6; Ps 85:9; 103:17); vs. 51: He has shown might with His arm (Ps 98:1; Is 40:10). It is this knowledge of God and His attributes that informs her prayer of praise as registered by the Magnificat. It goes to say that for one to freely engage in prayer of praise one must know God and His attributes through the scriptures by heart.
Again, look at each line of the Magnificat and see how our Lady intelligently recall God’s promises and poured out her soul and heart in appreciation for their fulfilment. She says, “He has given help to Israel, his servant, [Is 41:9] mindful of his mercy [Ps 98:3; Jer 31:3, 20]. For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.” [Gn 13:15; 22:18; Ps 132:11], Lk 1: 54-55. Mary is able to recall God’s promises because she is familiar with them and as they are rooted in scripture.
By the way why do we need the Word of God to praise God? Sometimes we find it hard to find words to pray. And the Spirit comes to help us to pray (Rom 8:26-27) but St Augustine says that Grace act on nature; so, one need to have something in him for the Spirit to act on. This being so, God has made it easy for us by giving us the scriptures which are full of examples of the very words of/for prayer. The more constantly we feed on the word, the richer and deeper our life of prayer becomes. Thus the Word of God is the food that makes us strong to pray.[vii] Many of us lack the will and effort to praise God because we are short of the knowledge of God. If only we knew God through scripture which is a deposit of the attributes of God then our primary responsibility before God would not have been threatened by the works of the flesh (Gal 5: 19), indolence and offering of flimsy excuses. But those guided by the knowledge of God are preoccupied with the works of the Spirit and the source of the fruit of such works is living a spirituality of praise like Mary.
The Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin also displays the Lady’s prayer of praise that flows from the strength of her soul and spirit. An essential element of prayer of praise in this regard is praying in the Spirit through the strength of the soul. I love how Mary describes where her praise emanates from. This is not just simple lip service to praising God (Mt 15:7-9). It is not just showing up to church and singing a few songs half-heartedly in between yawns. Mary’s Magnificat is from the deepest core of her being that is from her inmost centre – the core of her heart. She says: “My soul magnifies (praises) the Lord; And my spirit rejoices in God my saviour” (Lk 1:46-47). The soul is the seat of emotions while the spirit is the eternal part of man where God resides. Mary’s prayer of praise originates from the love she has for God and this love is driven by her will that is completely enveloped around God. Here is a high degree of Divine intimacy that knows no distractions, hang ups, and interruptions. The Spirit is in total control. Like Mary we can get to that state of prayer if and only if we allow a real partnership with the Holy Spirit. It is a matter of discipline, attitude and knowledge of God. Remember the Holy Spirit is the great Enabler of this dispensation. Accordingly we are required to watch and pray with high sensitivity to the Holy Spirit – His checks, His promptings, and His moods.[viii]
The whole of Mary’s Magnificat is a song/hymn of praise. We must admit the fact that it is not possible to engage in the prayer of praise without some form of singing. Singing perse is a method of praise though not the highest but praise depends on melodies for its full volume and its sweetness.[ix] To this end much of singing is praising and vice-versa. So, the character of the singing will be the genuineness or the measure of praise. Unfortunately, today most of our singing is devoid of hearty thought, devotional spirit and glorification of God. Most of our praise worship substitutes the flesh for the Spirit. But the main purpose of singing is to please God and not for our pleasure.[x]
A keen assessment of Mary’s canticle of praise reveals a soloist who raises her voice to heaven (Lk 1:46-50). She begins her song of praise by eternally appreciating God for His goodness to her. Hence she says consistently in the first person, My soul…My spirit…My Saviour. But she sums up her praise in a poetic and spiritual drive in the tone of a choir movement representative of the community of faithful (Lk 1:51-55). Here she joins the faithful to express her profound gratitude to God for all His promises and their fulfilment. What a lesson for us! By the example of our Lady we ought to beginning, progress and end our prayer of praise with sacred songs. Remember St. Augustine says, he who sings well prays twice.
The Magnificat of Mary is not a fruit of her flesh and blood but of the Holy Spirit. It is loaded with important messages to guide and guard our prayer life, specifically our spirituality of praise. So far, Mary through her Magnificat has demonstrated that a believer in Jesus Christ can praise God. However, there are some basic conditions to have in mind, pray for them and cultivate them for an authentic prayer of praise to take place. They include the knowledge of God and His attributes through a sound knowledge of the sacred scriptures, praising in the Spirit through the strength of the soul, praising with a humble heart, acknowledging God’s promises, singing unto the Lord and acknowledging God as the Alpha and Omega. Mary’s Magnificat satisfies all this. As a good mother she is ready to help us praise God in the right way if and only if we could invite her into our prayer life. Her primary assignment is to see to our overall conformity, unity, and consecration to the Person of Jesus Christ. Little wonder she says, we should do whatever Jesus tells us (Jn 2:5). Let us become angelic on earth as we take the activity of prayer of praise seriously by giving it all it demands – our hearts, souls, and spirits. May Mary Seat of Wisdom teach us how to pray – Amen.
[i] St. Louis De Montfort, True Devotion to Mary,(Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc, 1941), xxii.
[ii] Megan McKenna, MARY Shadow of Grace, (Bombay: Pauline Publications, 1996), 27.
[iii] St. Louis De Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, 10.
[iv] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nairobi: Pauline Publications Africa, 2001), no: 2639.
[v] Daily Roman Missal, 718.
[vi] Johannes Bauer (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Biblical Theology, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1970), 676
[vii]Wesley L. Duewel, Mighty Prevailing Prayer, 290.
[viii] Wesley L. Duewel, Touch the World through Prayer (Michigan: Francis Asbury Press, 1986), 200.
[ix] E. M. Bounds, The Essentials of Prayer (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1994), 45.
[x] Ibid, 47.