The Magnificent 'Magnificat of Mary'
A PRE-CHRISTMAS STORY
I gave this talk in the Grail Chapel, Green Gully on the first Sunday of Advent, 28 November 2021. This was exactly one year after I spoke about Mary, a virgin and unmarried teenager, who receives a message from the Archangel Gabriel that she is about to become pregnant by the Holy Spirit (posted December 2020..[i]
Now her story continues, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
She travels across country to her kinswoman Elizabeth. Mary may have been impelled into action by the quickening. Many women feel it, at first a butterfly fluttering in the womb. In Greek psyche means both butterfly and soul and this inner movement was traditionally seen as the soul coming in. Quick is the old word for ‘living’.
There were many legends circulating about young Mary, most not included in the canonical gospels. Muslims honour Mary as the highest of all women and in the Koran (Quran), the holy book of Islam a chapter or surah was devoted to her. It describes a pure girl, whose parents dedicated her to the Temple where she spent her childhood being taught by Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth. Mary would have felt safe with her.
Elizabeth conceived in her old age and is carrying the babe who will become John the Baptist. When Mary arrives this baby ‘leaps for joy’ in her womb – probably a mighty kick, and the devout older woman honours and blesses her young friend. Mary’s response is extraordinary. Here it is in Luke 1:46-55:
And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Mary is probably no more than 16 years old. We know that girls of this age can be truly amazing. Joan of arc was 17 when she first began her mission to save France. And today we have Malala Yousafzai, who at 15 survived being shot in the head by the Taliban yet went on campaigning for girls’ education, becoming the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Then there’s young Greta Thunberg who began her lonely activism for climate change at 15 and inspired other schoolgirls, including the young leaders who enacted the School Strike for Climate (SS4C) in my country.
There must be something uniquely and impulsively courageous in girls who have passed puberty but are not yet adults. Many of them have a fire that, if it is not completely focused on physical appearance or boyfriends, enables them to take on such awesome roles – a pure fire that womanhood can subdue or transform into resentment.
A voice of holy fire and power
Luke wanted to write a true record of the events surrounding the Christ. He received his information about Mary from eyewitnesses, perhaps some from her own remembrances. But his choices of what to include are intriguing. He was an imaginative author with the ability to create inspired word pictures, never more so than in his story of young Mary. I think Luke must have had a soft spot for her.
He has Mary speak with power in what came to be known as ‘the Magnificat’. My concern here is not whether or not she did say these words; I want to consider their significance for Luke and for us. He could have found inspiration in Hannah’s declaration when she dedicated her ‘miraculous’ little son Samuel, God’s gift to her in her barrenness, to the Lord’s service (1 Samuel 1 & 2:1-10). The form is also reminiscent of many of the psalms in the Bible. These were the ritual songs of praise and victory performed during the festivals in the Temple. They were chanted by men trained for this sacred work. In the first century, a female doing such a thing was unthinkable – and probably blasphemous.
As a declaration by a young pregnant woman, it reveals how truly extraordinary Mary was. I think that was Luke’s intention.
Let’s look closely at the Magnificat. It is well-known in the Catholic church, not so much in others. The first part is regularly quoted as an example of devotion to God – the ideal Christian woman with her eyes metaphorically downcast, speaking from a place of humility – as the Lord’s handmaid. We know this term today through the humiliation of the red-cloaked ‘handmaids’ in A Handmaid’s Tale, a title Margaret Atwood surely chose with intended irony. Yet traditionally a handmaid was hands-on, hand-in-hand close to her employer, sharing secrets not even the family could know. That is how Mary is with God.
And her ‘soul magnifies the Lord’, that is, the divine is made larger and more magnificent through and because of her, and that’s why her spirit rejoices. The words look conventional, until you recognise where Mary is coming from – a place of conviction and knowing. She may not know the whole reality of her child yet. But she affirms that she is indeed chosen and will be honoured down the ages.
Mary continues. Behold, she declares, I know how the Lord deals with the proud, the powerful and the rich. This latter part of the Magnificat is often left out as inappropriate for sweet and gentle Mary, too political or confronting for the establishment.
So yes, we have a young woman, pregnant with the Christ child, and she knows her true worth. Jesus was the chosen human being, without sin, in whom the cosmic I AM incarnated, there to become the human I AM. This is why the early Christians called Jesus ‘the Christ’ which means ‘the Anointed’.
Even though incarnating in a male body, Christ is a mighty power beyond gendered concepts. The masculine ‘he’ has long been a habit of speech from a patriarchal mindset. We don’t yet have an appropriate non-gendered pronoun other than non-ensouled ‘it’ or the plural ‘they/them’.
To become a Christ bearer
What do Mary’s words mean for us – for women and men too? Can these words from another age resonate with us today?
They can. So let’s bring them into our souls. For this is our drama too, involving universal principles that weave into our inner life. I think Luke came to experience the Christ within and chose such a dramatic statement to stop us in our tracks, so that, like Mary we can ask and know what it is to be the Christ bearer, to recognise as St Paul wrote, that ‘Christ is in you.’ (Luke was said to have been Paul’s physician).
We need to remember, especially when we are honouring the feminine at Advent, that just as this birth happened through a woman, the creation itself took place with the full participation of the divine feminine, known as Hokhmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek, in English Wisdom. And she was also active in the incarnation of the Christ.
The story of how Christ came to us is encapsulated in the Prologue to John’s gospel. It is about the high spiritual being within the infinite godhead, the being known as Logos, or Word, entering the human realm – the Word became flesh and tabernacled among and within us.
Divine Sophia was with the Logos, intimately linked, always offering her abundant wisdom. This is what I depicted in my imagined prologue to The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.[ii] Set in motion even as creation was occurring, in a mighty offering of love, the divine Logos-Sophia emanated from the transcendent realm and streamed towards the earth. Yet divine fullness did not diminish, a paradox of the incarnation difficult for our common logic to grasp.
We can imagine the high beingness pouring through the nine layers of heaven; from the cherubim, whose wings span the vast reaches of the universe, singing in homage before the throne of God almighty, through to the elohim who gave form to all creation. The archai who guide the ages of humankind, the archangels who work within the earth’s different peoples, and the angels, who are always close to us, experienced it as a renewing power. The shepherds heard the angel song in the fields around Bethlehem at the birth of the holy infant.
I watched a program on TV with Professor Brian Cox, the media’s favourite physicist. He spoke in reverent hushed tones accompanied by appropriate spacey music, about the universe and all the strange unbelievably distant and wonderful things in it, and how we can discover its truth. Great, but it was a lovely speculative 'science' story.
Yet close as a heartbeat to us, within us, all around us, our cosmos is teeming with spiritual life. We don’t have to look way beyond, we need only to penetrate the veil and this cosmos of love and wisdom will reveal itself. To begin with we need to acknowledge that we have a divine spark within us. Christ is that spark, our I AM, our spiritual self. We are essentially beings of love, which is the gift of Christ.
Does the thought fill you with awe and wonder? ‘Fear’ was the word given in the translation from the Greek, but awe is closer to a genuine relationship with the divine. At times this almost overwhelms me. Yet so many people have lost that most wondrous and beautiful connection.
The great strength within our soul
Let’s reframe Mary’s words in the second half of the Magnificat about the deeds of ‘God her saviour’. This is I AM and is the great strength within our soul. So …
I AM scatters and casts out our pride that leads us to believe we are in some way greater than others, for this is the wishful thinking of our ego.
I AM frees us from the need to boost our ego by belittling others or deluding ourselves through the false ‘imaginations of the heart’.
I AM brings us down from our throne, which is fabricated from desire for worldly power, success, status and riches. For the ruler of this world is Ahriman, Lord of the Lie. And Christ is stronger.
Of course, the things that feed the ego are easier – we like comfort, and the comfortable feeling that comes from buying ‘stuff’, or the power boost we get from winning, by claiming victory over-, being in control of-. These things offer short-lived satisfaction but cannot satisfy the deep longing of our soul.
I AM comes forward when our soul longs for Christ, when we are spiritually hungry and thirsty. Then we become open to I AM, and then we can be filled.
When we consider the awesome love of I AM, it leads us to compassion for others in their need and vulnerability, and for our own soul’s striving too when we fail to reach the highest ideal, as we will.
I AM leads us to true humility, which is to value who we are, and acknowledge that there is always more to discover about Christ in our soul.
Mary is a model for us with her courage and faith, her ability to endure the anguish and heart-pain as she comes to understand her beloved child’s terrifying and unique destiny. She ponders these things in her soul, Luke writes, and maybe through Golgotha as she looks up at her dying son, she becomes the first to know the reality of I AM. That’s just a thought I have. Whatever, let us give thanks at Christmas, that the young virgin was ready and willing to become the Holy Mother. For this has indeed brought joy to the world.
[i] It is called ‘Mary, the Soul’s Expectant Light’. Concerning the Annunciation it portrays how Mary dealt with the extraordinary news that speaks of the incarnation of the Sun Being and how it relates to our own soul development.
[ii] In Magdalene Christianity, portal 7, ‘The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene’; https://magdalenechristianity.com
The Artwork: 'The Visitation' by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1491