The "Merciless" Magnificat
Rev. Johann G. Roten, SM

As the day of Christ's birth draws near, our journey through Advent becomes ever more Marian. Indeed, the scripture texts of the last week before Christmas are a liturgical illustration of one of our better known Marianist mottos or catchwords: Per matrem ad Filium.

On December 17, Matthew reminded us, that it was of Mary that Jesus was born. The liturgies of December 18 and 19 pointed to the parallelism of the Angel's announcements to Joseph and Zechariah. On December 20 the Annunciation theme is further developed and, at the same time, contrasted with Isaiah's prophecy about the Virgin's child. Yesterday, the historical reflection was carried on in the encounter of the two pregnant holy women: Elizabeth and Mary. The historical reflection climaxed in Elizabeth's characterization of Mary: She, who trusted, is to be called blessed.

Today, the sacred narrator for a time leaves the stage and turns it over to Mary. She moves into the limelight of human and salvation history to give us a rare glimpse at her identity and self-understanding.

What she has to tell us is a beautiful synthesis of historical retrospective and eschatological prophecy. Her proclamation is the public account of a highly personal and intimate experience and, at the same time, a sharp insight into God's own policy toward humanity. The "Magnificat" is both a Song of joy and a manifesto of hope.  It is filled to the brim with sentiments of thanksgiving and sharing.

What some consider to be a colorful patchwork of Old Testament literary tidbits and others regard as a sophisticated composition of Lucan and/or Hellenistic poetry, is in fact and on a deeper level the astounding answer to a seemingly impossible question: How does a human being react when it becomes aware of God's own physical presence and growth within it?

[The Visitation]

The Visitation
Juan Correa De Vivar-1539 † 1552
The Museum Del Prado

A few years ago, a challenging book (J. Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses in Everywoman, 1984) tried to entertain the belief in women that there was a goddess in each one of them, and, that to discover her mystery, she was to identify with her ruling goddess, to be chosen among either the independent Artemis and self-assured Athena or the maternal Demeter and the creative Aphrodite.

Mary did not have to tap the power of goddess-archetypes, she did not have to resort to a mythically-upgraded personality trait, in order to know that there was God's Grace within her, growing into a human being and feeding on her very own biological and psychological substance. Mary's pregnancy evolves into a unique faith experience: it involves the total woman, the physical, psychological and mental dimensions of her being. Simultaneously, her faith experience is the culmination of all of the Old Testament's positive attitudes towards God, altogether a personal crystallization of what generations before Mary had experienced on an often troubled and disturbed faith-journey. At the same time, her faith represents a qualitative leap from conditional to unconditional faith. For Mary, faith is no longer only a quality of life, it is life itself.

This is why the Magnificat, the reaction of the woman who knows that God inhabits her virginal womb, reaches out both to the past and to the future, is retrospective and prophetic at the same time. The Magnificat is totally imbued with the faith and hope of Israel, but simultaneously it becomes the "scale of perfection" for all future generations. Its meaning and substance are both private and public, for Mary's experience is essentially open to the future. Her song announces not only the birth of Christ, but also the birth of a new people, a liberated people, a people whose life will be centered on the Spirit of Life.

Mary's song is the magna charta of any and all authentic faith experience. It is a description of the two columns upon which rests the weight of God's grace in this world; it pictures the two wings on which the soul is elevated toward her final encounter with God. Whenever God chooses to establish his dwelling-place in a human heart, he stamps it with two of His own characteristic features, that is, with the attitudes of thanksgiving and sharing. The first feature--thanksgiving--refers back to God in praise for His gift; the second feature helps us to reach out and share this gift with other human beings.

On the Eve of Christmas, the two complementary faith attitudes of thanksgiving and sharing take on a new meaning and a fresh urgency. Our waiting for the Lord subtly changes to a thankfully assured waiting for the fullness of time. And our habitual attitude of sharing should deepen to a more interior quality of communicating God's love made man to others.

But let us return to the Magnificat and to Mary's untypically auto-directed prophecy, when she says: "All generations will call me blessed." This word is not wishful and self-congratulatory day-dreaming. There is a sharp and imperative edge to this--so it would seem--candidly, naive sentence. Not only are we to call her blessed, we are bound literally to re-enact the same faith-patterns in our lives. Mary is the way and the scale of our faith. To call her blessed effectively means, therefore, to put into practice efficaciously our Marianist motto: Per Matrem ad Filium.

Those among us who have learned about wine-tasting may know and recall its sacred ritual of swirling, sniffing, sipping, swishing, gurgling and spitting. The one vital tool of the profession of wine tasting is a high-stemmed and hand-blown tasting glass. It is called l'impitoyable, the merciless one, because it mercilessly holds, weighs and balances the wine merchant's good fortune and future. Similarly, the Magnificat is the merciless tasting glass of our faith, of its fruit, its depth and its length. For it is in this way that the quality of wine is measured: by its fruit, its depth and its length. The Magnificat holds, weighs and balances the good fortune and future of the authentic believer. It constantly confronts us with these questions: Do we accept that our faith be molded by Mary's openness and receptivity? Does the quality of our faith at least remotely convey the fullness of Mary's faith? Are length and depth of our faith (two decisive criteria to determine a premier cru) worthy to be poured into the crystal-clear tasting glass of Mary's faith?

Of course, Mary is not the wine-taster. This task belongs to God alone. He is the one who sips, swishes and gurgles. Let us therefore hope, that the taste of our faith be agreeable to His divine palate, that He will not have to spit it out into the sink of worthlessness.


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