by Chuck Huff
As a Benedictine Oblate, I regularly pray the daily office, and at the end of the day find myself praying the Magnificat. My long apprenticeship as a Protestant metho-bap-terian did not prepare me for the beauty and terror of this praise poem. Through long practice, I have seen deeper levels and more variety of meaning than my initial Calvinist skepticism would have expected. The text has alternatively left me peaceful, puzzled, cold, frightened, hopeful, and comforted.
This is a canticle of justice finally being done, of a deliverer finally coming to the aid of the oppressed. It is part of a long tradition of Hebrew women in scripture who sing pointed praise songs about a deliverer who "triumphs gloriously" in favor of the oppressed (this last quoted phrase comes from the song of Miriam after the Hebrews are delivered from Egypt).
The poem is set at a meeting of Mary, now pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth her cousin, also pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth begins the conversation with her own blessing of Mary: "blessed is she who has believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken." Then Mary speaks of what she has believed, and sings praise for the deliverer who is coming:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden,
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud of heart.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.
Mary's song praises a deliverer who finally sets things right. When we are angry at injustice, we glory in the oppressor being cast down. But to many there is a frightening ring to these words: some people are scattered, cast down, sent away empty. Could this be us? Could it be me? Thus in quieter moments, our own anger and fear and rejoicing and self-doubt all mix to make this a profoundly disturbing song. It is in this disturbance that I have found another level of reconciliation with this song.
In another famous Christian reversal, we are told that we are to "love our enemies." What are we who struggle to love our enemies to do with the reversal of the proud? Perhaps, if we love our enemies, we can pray that the mighty are cast down in order that they might be "of low degree" and themselves learn to "believe there will be a fulfillment." That is, being cast down might be the surgery, the gift, even the blessing, that is needed for the mighty who have forgotten their mortality, their utter dependence. There is some joy in this waiting hopefully for those other proud people to be humbled. And of course, we wish this only so that they might be blessed. This is a dangerous path, there is danger that we hope only for vengeance, for schadenfreude.
To wish this gift on others is not to recognize how hard it is to receive this gift. One must first recognize it as a gift. When I am cast down, or sent away empty, I focus on my loss, and not on what Rumi calls the new guests in my house:
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
If we are the proud who have been cast down, it is hard to "meet [these sorrows] at the door laughing." But there is also a hope: that when we are cast down or scattered, we might discover new life in dependence on our creator. May we who are rich be made empty so that we might be filled, fulfilled, with the blessings of this holy time.