The Politics of the Magnificat

May 27, 2014

Suppose a public figure with a profound faith in God and a luminous conviction of the importance of family life gave a speech, not precisely on these themes, but rather excoriating the wealthy for their selfishness and showing a seemingly revolutionary contempt for earthly authority. Our political heads would spin, no doubt. Who is this person of seemingly contradictory impulses? Yet, without too large a stretch, we could say this describes Mary’s Magnificat on the occasion of the Visitation to St. Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55). Of course the Blessed Mother is not a politician and the Magnificat is not a speech. It is a transcendent hymn of praise to God inspired by the wonder of the Incarnation taking place in her “lowly” womb. In the coming of Christ she senses a great vindication: God becoming man in such a humble way means the downtrodden finally have their day. Salvation for the righteous and the poor is imminent. The oppressors and the self-satisfied will be swept aside as they deserve. The Magnificat is a spiritual hymn but it also is a song of solidarity:

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.

It is striking that Mary speaks of God’s actions in the past tense. He has already done these things. The vindication of the poor and hungry is not just a pious dream—it has already gone on and and is coming to fulfillment. We believe in heaven, but faith also involves seeing the breaking through of God’s kingdom now. God is always acting in the world, taking the side of the poor and punishing the unjust. But, in his wisdom, He allows for the necessity of our “yes”: we must be instruments of His justice by prayer and action. That yes is most perfectly exemplified by Mary’s fiat, which paved the way for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Looking at the Magnificat through the lens of social thought, one cannot forget that the inspirations for the hymn are two unborn children. John the Baptist leapt in His mother’s womb at the presence of the Redeemer. Mary was overcome with joy at the infinite promise that her Son represented and the reception of that promise betokened by John. Every child is a miracle of life, a gift and potential saint. None should be wasted or thrown away. Abortion is a crime and a blasphemy. In Christ, God has come to the help of His servant Israel. He has saved, not just individuals, but a people. The new Israel is the Church. Although it is no longer an earthly nation, still it exists in the world as a leaven, called to magnify the Lord and be an instrument of love and justice. In saying yes to God in the womb of Holy Mary, we rejoice in God and stand with all of the lowly and forgotten in the world.

Image: Fra Angelico, The Visitation

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