JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT

MAGNIFICAT


Summary

I. The Magnificat in Montfort’s Life and Thought: 1. Hymn of Mary; 2. Expression of praise and blessing; 3. Divine canticle; 4. Prayer with the power of God; 5. Prayer filled with mystery. II. The Magnificat in Contemporary Thought: 1. Theological hymn; 2. Salvific hymn; 3. Song of liberation; 4. Ecumenical song. III. The Magnificat in Montfort Spirituality: 1. Global and critical approach; 2. Historico-salvific reading; 3. Current-day reading; 4. In communion with Mary.


The Magnificat, song of the Virgin and of the people of God, has always held an eminent place in the community of believers, in liturgy as well as in personal piety. In the Byzantine tradition, since ancient times, it has been part of the morning celebration and sung virtually every day. The Magnificat is performed standing, with solemnity, during the “great censing” that precedes Lauds. In such a context, we might almost speak of the daily feast of the Magnificat.1 The canticle has inspired hymn-like compositions called Megalinària, including Timiotéran and Axion estin, which are particularly cherished in Byzantine piety.

The Magnificat is also solemnized in the Armenian and Maronite liturgies in the daily morning psalmody, as practiced in the West in the old Gallican liturgy.

During the fifth or sixth centuries it was sung each day as part of Vespers. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written at Monte Cassino in about 530, gives the earliest evidence of this.2

The Magnificat has retained its central role in the liturgy while playing no less important a role in the spirituality and piety of the faithful over the centuries. There have been too many commentaries on the hymn to mention here,3 and it would be nearly impossible to measure its impact on souls, which, as Montfort himself notes, has certainly been significant (cf. TD 255).


I. THE MAGNIFICAT IN MONTFORT’S LIFE AND THOUGHT

Montfort includes himself among those who have been fascinated with the Magnificat and have drawn strength from its spirituality. He does not often refer to the Magnificat, but we can perceive the place of honor he reserves for it in his own spiritual experience as well as in his theological and Marian doctrine.

He recommends that it be recited often, at important and solemn moments, after Holy Communion, for example (SM 64; TD 255), and before leaving this life (HD 24). “The only hymn composed by our Lady” (SM 64), the Magnificat allows us to participate in her spirit and to share her sentiments, in accordance with Montfort’s conception of “performing all our actions with Mary, in Mary, through Mary, and for Mary” (SM 43; cf. TD 258-261). Montfort cites Saint Ambrose’s exhortation: “May the soul of Mary be in each one of us to glorify the Lord; may the spirit of Mary be in each one of us to rejoice in God.”4 He invokes this citation explicitly on three occasions, at the culmination of both SM and TD, to indicate how the Christocentric and Marian spirituality that he teaches can live within us (TD 258) and to show us how the path of fidelity to Christ through Mary leads us to communication with the soul and spirit of Mary, giving joyful glory to God (SM 54; TD 217).

The Magnificat is a precious key to unlocking Montfort’s mystical experience and spirituality. He counts it among the prayers and expressions that characterize true devotion to Mary (TD 116) and perfect Consecration (TD 255).

The significance and excellence of the canticle are due to certain of its characteristics that Montfort illuminates.

1. Hymn of Mary

The first is that it is a hymn of Mary, reflecting the exceptional richness of her interior world. In Montfort’s words, it is “the only prayer we have which was composed by our Lady, or rather, composed by Jesus in her, for it was he who spoke through her lips” (TD 255). Not only is it a prayer suggested by the Holy Spirit; it is uttered by Jesus himself from the mouth of his mother. This is certainly a singular vision, but highly indicative of the communion between the Virgin and her Son and of the theological aspect of this sublime hymn.

2. Expression of praise and blessing

It is an expression of praise and blessing (SR 47), of thanksgiving and petition (SM 64). It is a prayer addressed to God in return for the blessings granted to the Virgin and continuously delivered to all those who place their trust in her: “It is the greatest offering of praise that God ever received under the law of grace. On the one hand, it is the most humble hymn of thanksgiving and, on the other, it is the most sublime and exalted” (TD 255).

3. Divine canticle

Montfort observes correctly that the Magnificat is a divine canticle that comes from Jesus in the Spirit and returns to the Father (cf. TD 255, 258). While remembering that we recite the Magnificat to “thank God for favoring us” (SM 64), Montfort does not completely explore the meaning of its “theological dimension”: the celebration of God and God’s work in the history of salvation, especially the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, the specific object of the Magnificat. For Montfort, its theological import lies in the fact that the Virgin, through her hymn, returns to the Lord the praise and benedictions that are addressed to her, like a faithful echo (cf. SR 47; TD 140, 225). On the other hand, the saint does evoke, albeit briefly and rather generally, the Trinitarian implications of this theological dimension; the hymn is “most glorious to the Blessed Trinity, for any honor we pay to our Lady returns inevitably to God, the source of all her perfections and virtues. God the Father is glorified when we honor the most perfect of his creatures; God the Son is glorified when we praise his most pure Mother; the Holy Spirit is glorified when we are lost in admiration at the graces with which he has filled his spouse” (SR 47).5

4. Prayer with the power of God

The Magnificat is a prayer with the power of God. It does not merely invoke the memory of the works of salvation but demonstrates their living efficaciousness: “The learned Benzonius . . . cites several miracles worked through the power of this prayer. The devils, he declares, take to flight when they hear these words, ‘He puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted’“ (TD 255).6

5. Prayer filled with mystery

Finally, the Magnificat is a prayer filled with mystery. It contains the secrets of God, which human thought cannot attain and which should only be approached in reverence and fear. “Contained in it are mysteries so great and so hidden that even the angels do not understand them. . . . It was with apprehension that [Gerson] undertook towards the end of his life to write a commentary on the Magnificat which was the crowning point of all his works. In a large volume on the subject he says many wonderful things about this beautiful and divine canticle” (TD 255).7


II. THE MAGNIFICAT IN CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT

The difficulties presented by the Magnificat in the past were due to the great “mysteries” it contained and to its exceptional theological and spiritual wealth. Over the past century these difficulties have become of a different kind altogether.8 We now find ourselves confronted with scholars, including a number of unbelievers, who have subjected the text of the Magnificat to technical analysis with quite varied and indeed disconcerting results. The (sometimes ingenuous) piety and devotion with which the canticle was approached for so many centuries have given way to the “scientific” method and criticism. Thus the Magnificat is now being studied with the use of ever more refined methods and techniques; if, on the one hand, these techniques have illuminated some important characteristics of the canticle, they have, on the other, frequently done harm to its theological richness and spiritual inspiration. The past few decades, however, have brought a favorable inversion of this tendency: exegesis has become more open to the theological and anthropological aspects of the text, with, in the case of the Magnificat, some notable results.

Leaving aside minor problematical questions, we would like to draw attention to some of the more valid acquisitions from recent exegesis.

The first is the scientific dimension of the research endorsed, in the Catholic realm, by the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943); the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s letter Sancta mater ecclesia, and the Conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum have both insisted on this as well.9 A rigorous exegesis, conscious of its responsibilities and its limits, has consistently brought forth valuable results. It has produced an impressive bibliography on the Magnificat10—clearly not limited to Catholic sources—that has enlarged our perspectives enormously. Particular study has been given to the literary genre and structure of the hymn, its place of origin, its transmission, its placement in the text of Luke 1-2 and in relation to the entire book of Luke, its potential relationship to the poetry of its period, and its Old Covenant background in the context of a biblical theology centered on the Christ event. The figure of the Blessed Virgin has been considered not simply in herself but as part of a relationship of living continuity between Israel and the Church. The song’s impact on the actual history of the world, of a mankind still marked by violence and oppression and in need of true liberation, has also been studied.

We can now see the Magnificat as a dynamic, multidimensional song, compelling us to commit ourselves to God’s plan. To proclaim the hymn means to assume the attitudes of concrete responsibility before God and the world. In what follows, we shall emphasize a few of these many dimensions.

1. Theological hymn

The theological dimension of the hymn is the most obvious and also the most important, on which every other aspect of the hymn depends. The Lord is not simply the direct object of the Virgin’s song (“my whole being rejoices in God my Savior”: v. 47)11 but also the subject- protagonist, even from a literary standpoint, of the verbs from verse 48 through verse 54 that make up the powerful dynamic structure on which the entire song rests. J. Dupont has written a study of this passage entitled, with justification, Le Magnificat comme discours sur Dieu (The Magnificat as a discourse on God):12 “The Magnificat does not define God; it speaks of God in terms of different aspects of His saving intervention, beginning with the Annunciation, of which Mary—according to Luke—is the first witness. The Magnificat locates the mystery of the Savior God and gives its coordinates.”13 In the words of Redemptoris mater, the canticle reveals “the truth about the God of the Covenant,” a truth that has been obscured by sin and lack of faith. The Magnificat “sees uprooted that sin which is found at the outset of the earthly history of man and woman, the sin of disbelief and of ‘little faith’ in God. In contrast with the ‘suspicion’ that the ‘father of lies’ sowed in the heart of Eve, the first woman, Mary . . . boldly proclaims the undimmed truth about God: the holy and almighty God, who from the beginning is the source of all gifts, he who ‘has done great things’ in her” (Redemptoris mater, 37).

This theological “re-centering” of the hymn seems to us to be one of the most notable rediscoveries that contemporary exegesis and theology have made.

2. Salvific hymn

The theological dimension is closely bound with its salvific dimension. This is no philosophical or abstract God but a living God Who acts in history and works among His people. Salvation, the central element of the biblical story and Revelation, occupies an exceptional place in the Magnificat. Within the song, all of past history is synthesized and future history is anticipated, and both are centered on the birth of the Savior.

The history of men and women in the ancient covenant, and the vicissitudes of Israel, the people of the covenant, are recapitulated in Mary, the servant of the Lord. Here we should note the link between verse 48 (“he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant”) and verse 54 (“he has helped his servant Israel”).

In a way, Israel’s experience of grace is concentrated in Mary. Her song anticipates the voice of the Church, and in it resounds the eschatological praise of the redeemed. The Magnificat is “the song of the messianic times, in which there mingles the joy of the ancient and the new Israel. . . . It is in Mary’s canticle that there was heard once more the rejoicing of Abraham . . . and there rang out in prophetic anticipation the voice of the Church. . . . And in fact Mary’s hymn has spread far and wide and has become the prayer of the whole Church in all ages” (MC 18).14

3. Song of liberation

Few biblical passages have received so much attention and so successfully energized various contemporary groups and movements, not only religious and spiritual but also socially or politically inspired. The hymn of the Virgin has become an important point of reference for contemporary theology and spirituality and a basis for Christian involvement with society. Contact with the hymn has led theology to a rediscovery of its character as the word of salvation and liberation and has taught spirituality to unite praise and joy in God—in the experience of poverty—with the reality of involvement, in accordance with God’s plan to overthrow the powerful and raise the lowly. The perspective of the Magnificat is in harmony with the liveliest contemporary expectations.

The song, which has been rediscovered both within and outside the Church, has been preeminently validated over the past several years in Latin America: “The Magnificat expresses well this spirituality of liberation. A song of thanksgiving for the gifts of the Lord, it expresses humbly the joy of being loved by Him. . . . But at the same time it is one of the New Testament texts which contains great implications both as regards liberation and the political sphere. This thanksgiving and joy are closely linked to the action of God who liberates the oppressed and humbles the powerful.”15

The Magisterium of the Church has also turned its attention to the Magnificat as a hymn of liberation of the poor.16 We refer in particular to the encyclical Redemptoris mater. The song of Mary not only reveals the truth about the God of the covenant but also—and precisely through this revelation—displays its preferential love for the poor, of which the song itself is the privileged expression. Through the Magnificat, the Church will become ever more aware that “the truth about the God who saves . . . cannot be separated from the manifestation of his love of preference for the poor and humble, that love which, celebrated in the Magnificat, is later expressed in the words and works of Jesus” (Rmat 37).

4. Ecumenical song

The ecumenical impulse not only inspired the body of work produced by the Second Vatican Council but is apparent in conciliar statements on the Virgin Mary (cf. LG 62, 67, 69). This aspect of the devotion to Our Lady is explicitly stressed by Paul VI, who believed ecumenism should be one of the fundamental characteristics of a renewed devotion to the Blessed Virgin (cf. MC 32-33).

Since ancient times, the Magnificat’s vocation has been of reconciliation and communion: we need only remember how its daily recitation in the prayer of Lauds or Vespers has always united diverse Christian confessions in praise of God. In addition, this NT psalm contains an excellent synthesis of Hebraic spirituality.


III. THE MAGNIFICAT IN MONTFORT SPIRITUALITY

In order to give adequate due to the Magnificat, we must go beyond particular experiences and points of view and beyond a merely partial understanding of the hymn. In particular, the hymn requires a scientific reading, close attention to the salvation story contained within it, and a clear-sighted examination of its current reality.

1. Global and critical approach

The scientific character of research on the Magnificat has now brought us to a point of consensus such that it is becoming more difficult to distinguish among the diverse confessional origins of the hymn’s exegetes. The value of exegesis in general has been strongly confirmed by the work on the Magnificat. Scholars of every religious persuasion have made the hymn the object of considerable research, and yet their various positions have converged. Without taking anything away from the secular tradition of the past, a “critical” reading has today become the basis for all subsequent progress.

2. Salvation History reading

Another fundamental aspect of any reading of the Magnificat is the story of salvation: the Magnificat is not an expression of individual piety or private sentiment but a liberation hymn celebrating God’s great works of salvation on behalf of His servants, of those who fear Him, of Israel, of the redeemed. This is a powerful synthesis of the history of salvation that begins with the Exodus and reaches its fulfillment in the coming of the Savior, anticipating the eschatological aspect of the world’s redemption.

3. Current-day reading

Finally, we must read the Magnificat in light of the contemporary vicissitudes of humanity, listening for the prophetic voices of the world’s believers and of those who are building a society that is more worthy of God’s plan and open to the salvific content of the Blessed Virgin’s hymn. The Magnificat leads us to a “theological” reading of history, which, in all its contradictions, obliges us to rethink the canticle and extract from it the meaning of salvation for our time.

4. In communion with Mary

Montfort calls on his readers to recite it often and, especially, to give it a place in their prayer life. The Magnificat is a prayer that Scripture has placed on the lips of the Virgin Mary and that the Church places on the lips of believers. But Montfort is not content with simply reciting the hymn; he urges us on to an intimate identification with Mary, whose soul glorifies the Lord, whose spirit rejoices in God the Savior (cf. TD 258). The Magnificat sprang forth from the heart of Mary while she carried the Savior in her womb, and, as Montfort suggests, it should resound in the hearts of the faithful when they receive Jesus Christ, the Lord, in Holy Communion. Mary thus becomes the symbol of the Church who gives thanks to God for His saving interventions in the history of salvation, especially the coming of Christ in history and in hearts. We must recover the “piety” of the Magnificat and also its theological and ecclesial dimensions, with its great historical and salvific wealth, and with attention to the signs of our times. God’s salvation is still at work in the world today; it must be celebrated and proclaimed.

A. Valentini


Notes: (1) G. Gharib, Il canto del Magnificat nella liturgia bizantina, in Mater Ecclesiae (The Magnificat Song in the Byzantine Liturgy) 13 (1977), 24. (2) Cf. Ph. Rouillard, Il Magnificat nella liturgia attuale (The Magnificat in the Present Day Liturgy), ibid., 65. See also A. Schweissinger, Magnificat, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 6:786. (3) For an investigation of studies on the Magnificat, cf. P. De Alva y Astorga, Expositio nova litteralis cantici Magnificat (The New Literal Explanation of the Magnificat), in J.-J. Bourassé, Summa aurea de laudibus beatissimae Virginis Mariae, Paris 1866, 13:677-682. (4) S. Ambrosius, Expos. in Lucam, 26, PL 15:1642. (5) Montfort takes this text from the work of the Dominican Antonin Thomas, Rosier mystique de la très sainte Vierge (Mystical Rosebush of the Most Holy Virgin), 2nd ed., Rennes 1685, second decade, chap. 8. (6) Rutilio Benzonio († 1613), bishop of Lorette and Recanati, author of Dissertationes et commentaria in canticum Magnificat . . . libri quinque (Dissertations and Commentaries on the Magnificat... five books), Venice 1606. The passage to which Montfort refers can be found in book 5, p. 134. (7) Cf. Gersonii opera, Paris 1606, 2:904-915. (8) We will simply mention one problem of textual criticism, raised at the end of the last century and continuing several decades into this one: the attribution of the Magnificat to Elizabeth, despite the near completeness of the codex and the virtual unanimity in assigning the hymn to Mary. This betrays some inconsistency, but the problem has been of interest to scholars for some time. It is indicative of the radical change in interest over time and of the ingenuous rationalism that has characterized certain areas of research (cf. A. Valentini, La controversia circa l’attribuzione del Magnificat (The Controversy concerning the Attribution of the Magnificat), in Mar 45 (1983), 55- 93. (9) Cf. Divino afflante Spiritu, EB 557-562; Sancta mater ecclesia, 2; Dei Verbum, especially 12. (10) Cf. A. Valentini, Il Magnificat: Genere litterario, struttura, esegesi (The Magnificat Literary Genre, Structure, Exegesis), Bologna 1987, 269ff. (11) Our translation diverges from the usual translation in the hope of conveying the density and strength of the original. (12) In NRT 112 (1980), 321-343. (13) Ibid., 342. (14) On this central aspect of the Virgin’s hymn, which takes up the triumphal hymn of Moses (Ex 15:1- 18) or, to a greater extent, of Miriam (v. 21) and anticipates the hymn of the redeemed in the last Exodus (Rev 15:3-4), cf. A. Valentini, Il Magnificat, passim. (15) G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1973, 207-208. (16) Apart from the positive references in MC 37, there is some critical reflection in the Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Liberation Theology, August 6, 1984. This document expresses reservations about a “political reading” of the Magnificat: “The error does not inhere in bringing attention a political aspect to Biblical narratives (especially that of the Exodus), but in considering this their principal and exclusive aspect, which leads to a reductionist reading of Scripture.”

 

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Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

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