Advent and Christmas form a unique “Marian Season.” Christians recall that it was Mary, awaiting the birth of her son, who celebrated the very first advent. Mary made a unique faith journey, preparing for Christ’s nativity for nine full months. Filipinos make their proximate preparation for Christmas during Advent, particularly with the nine-day novena of morning masses, known as Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo, the “Mass of the Rooster.”
In the novena of dawn masses, most of the Gospel readings are drawn from “Mary’s Biographer,” Luke the Evangelist. On the seventh day of the novena (December 22), the faithful hear as the Gospel proclamation the beautiful Magnificat prayer of Mary during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:46-55). Mary can be heard singing her Christmas song, that same canticle she probably sung repeatedly during the nine months of her pregnancy, the original advent season.
Spiritual Insight. “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn,” preached Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. “It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might say, the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here.”
Bonhoeffer continues: “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about
collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” Yes, Mary sings a song that proclaims God’s gracious, effective compassion and liberation!
It is helpful to recall the context of Mary’s Magnificat hymn. Mary has generously said fiat to the invitation to become the Mother of God through Gabriel’s Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38). Her deep faith and willingness to serve have prompted her to make the arduous journey to Ain Karim, a trip of over one hundred kilometers from Nazareth. Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45) is a generous act of service; though pregnant herself, she does not hesitate to be of service to another much older Jewish woman, six months pregnant with her first child. What a scene of great joy! Mary and Elizabeth, both faithful women of Israel, have been uniquely blessed by the Most High. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s Magnificat is the long and beautiful prayer-poem she uttered on this emotion-filled occasion.
Two Moments. Mary’s Magnificat song, structured as a thanksgiving psalm, unfolds in two parts. Part One praises God’s mercy; Mary’s eyes are raised to the Lord (Lk 1:46-50); “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Part Two reflects on God’s victorious deeds for the oppressed; Mary’s eyes are scanning all humanity, especially the poor and marginalized (Lk 1:51-55); “he has exalted the lowly.” The two parts are linked by a profound sense of God’s faithful compassion, to Mary and Elizabeth as well as to the liberated poor and needy. Two integrated themes emerge: spirituality and social justice.
Mary begins by focusing on the Lord, magnifying him, proclaiming his greatness, rejoicing in her savior. She is filled with joy. Looking into her own heart, she acknowledges what the Lord has done for her; he has looked upon his lowly, faithful servant. All will call her blessed, for “the Almighty has done great things” on her behalf.
With one piercing glance, Mary grasps the paradox of her littleness and her greatness. Simultaneously she is the lowly slave, the one totally at the service of the Lord; yet she is so great that all future generations will bless her, a prophecy fulfilled in every “Hail Mary” prayed through the centuries. In her Magnificat Mary gives us the fruit of her “treasuring” and “pondering” over many months the mystery of the incarnation unfolding in her womb. Her joyful song allows us to have a glimpse into the depths of her maternal heart.
Another Dimension. The second moment in Mary’s song accentuates the radical spiritual revolution that she heralds. The Lord is turning everything upside down. The powerful, the proud, the rich are being dethroned, and the lowly, the poor, and the weak now become the favored ones. Mary’s canticle is indeed the song of a “spiritual revolutionary.”
Mary’s song is the prayer of a poor woman, reflecting her own situation as a member of an oppressed people who now experience God’s compassion and liberation. God favored her precisely as a lowly woman to manifest his all-encompassing love for the world. The Magnificat prayer also reflects the great biblical theme of “final reversal,” where the last become the first, the least become the greatest, the barren become the fruitful, and the humble of heart (anawim) become God’s favored. In God’s design, the social hierarchy of wealth and poverty, power and subjugation are inverted, turned upside down.
Joining Mary’s Song. The Magnificat, which the entire Church says daily during evening prayer, must remain a challenge for us—at Christmas and always. Christians need to constantly integrate prayer and praise of God (worship) with commitment to social transformation (justice). To glorify God demands striving to be anawim, opting for the poor, the hungry, the powerless. To be Christian demands a reversal of values; one must become “counter-cultural,” challenging the status quo. We join with Mary in praising God for his loving-kindness and in generously embracing the poor of this world. Indeed, it is only in this two-fold way that our celebration of Christmas will be authentic!
Two Papal Insights. In his encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) , Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about Mary’s holistic vision of God’s design of salvation manifested at Christmas: “The Church’s love of preference for the poor is wonderfully inscribed in Mary’s Magnificat…. Mary is deeply imbued with the spirit of the ‘poor of Yahweh’…. Mary truly proclaims the coming of the ‘Messiah of the poor’ (cf. Is. 11:4; 61:1). Drawing from Mary’s heart, from the depths of her faith expressed in the words of the Magnificat, the Church renews ever more effectively in herself the awareness that the truth about God who saves, the truth about God who is the source of every gift, 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.”
Pope Francis also provides us with profound insights on the role of Mary and her “exceptional pilgrimage of faith” in his Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) [287-288]: “There is a Marian ‘style’ to the Church’s work of evangelization…. Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for “bringing down the mighty from their thrones” and “sending the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52-53) is also … “a model of evangelization” for all Christians.
Final Greeting. May you and your family enjoy a “Magnificat Christmas,” filled with both singing God’s praises and serving our needy neighbors!