What was Mary really like?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 7, 2018

Mary’s Magnificat reveals her prayer life with God

What was Mary, the Mother of God, like on earth?

Despite her key role in salvation history, Mary — whose birthday the church celebrates on Sept. 8 — speaks only four times in the Gospels:

  • At the Annunciation (Lk 1: 34-38);
  • After the 12-year-old Jesus is lost in the Temple (Lk 2:48);
  • At the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:3-5);
  • The longest of Mary’s speeches comes in Lk 1:46-55, where she is with Elizabeth (3 1:46-55).
“The Visitation,” circa 1445, by Luca della Robbia featured in an exhibit in spring 2017 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
(CNS photo | courtesy National Gallery of Art )

These few words ((less than 150) of Mary nonetheless give us an insight into who Mary was in her daily life. We hear the Magnificat at least once each year during Mass, sometimes during Advent and/or the great Marian feasts of the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception and the Visitation.

Mary words came in response to Elizabeth’s: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

The Magnificat takes its name from two Latin words that mean “to do great” or “to make great.”  It is the first words from the Latin version of Mary’s words: Magnificat anima mea, Dominum (“My soul magnifies the Lord.”)

Song of Mary

The Magnificat is also called Mary’s Canticle, the Song of Mary or even Evangelium Maria (the Gospel of Mary). It is one of three canticles used every day in the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer of the church. The other two are the Canticle of Zechariah (called the Benedictus, Lk 1:68-79) and the Song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis, Lk 2: 29-32). Simeon’s song comes at the end of the day during Compline, or night prayer). Zechariah’s words — uttered after the birth of his son, John — come in morning prayer (also called “Lauds” or “Matins,” though the two have been separate in the past).

The Magnificat is used for evening prayer, or Vespers. However, in Greek Orthodox churches, the canticle is assigned to morning prayer. In all Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, the Magnificat is also called the “Ode of the Theotokos” (a title which means “God-bearer” and which is unique to Mary).

More glorious than angels

In these churches, between each verse of the Magnificat, this phrase is inserted: “You who are more to be honored than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim, you who, uncorrupted, gave birth to God the Word, in reality the God-bearer, we exalt you.”

The Magnificat is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise, offered to God by the Mother of God. As such, Mary gives us an example of how a faithful disciple should live in God’s presence. The canticle is commonly divided into four parts.

  • Thanksgiving. Mary realizes how God has looked upon her in her “lowliness” and done “great things” specifically for her. Mary’s first response is gratitude to God for the joy she is experiencing.

Pope Francis, speaking at World Youth Day last year, said of the Magnificat: “Mary’s is a revolutionary prayer, the song of a faith-filled young woman conscious of her limits, yet confident in God’s mercy. She gives thanks to God for looking upon her lowliness and for the work of salvation that he has brought about for the people, the poor and the humble. Faith is at the heart of Mary’s entire story.”

  • Praise. Mary honors God by saying, “Holy is his name.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that this part of the Magnificat “has the tone of a choir, as if to Mary’s voice were joined that of the community of the faithful, which celebrates God’s amazing decisions.” This is where all of us can echo Mary in praising our creator.

  • Reversal of circumstances of the lowly: here Mary recognizes what her son later says, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation …”

St. John Paul II noted that Mary understood well God’s plan of salvation: “With her wise reading of history, Mary leads us to discover the criteria of God’s mysterious action. Overturning the judgments of the world, he comes to the aid of the poor and lowly, to the detriment of the rich and powerful, and in a surprising way he fills with good things the humble who entrust their lives to him.”

Mary recognizes how God has always done this through the ages — from the homeless Abraham to the enslaved Israelites, to the poor of her day, and her words echo forward to the forgotten and downtrodden of our own days.

  • Rejoicing in how God is faithful to his promises. “He has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things …”

Work of Messiah

As Mary speaks, we hear a foreshadowing of the work and words of the Messiah, her own son and his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor….” The late Jesuit theologian, Fr. John Hardon, noted how this part of Mary’s canticle “recalls that all the ancient prophecies to the Jews are now being fulfilled in the Messiah, who was at that moment present in her womb.”

These wonderful words that Mary shares, first with Elizabeth, but again each day with those who join her in prayer, give us an idea of how Mary lived during her time in the world and how she also knew that what was happening in her life would affect countless lives for eternity.

As Marist Fr. Johann G. Roten, a noted Marian scholar, said, “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.”

Not a lot of words in total, but countless things to ponder in our hearts, as Mary did in hers.


Sources: etymonline.com; International Marian Research Institute at udayton.edu; Catholic Encyclopedia; vatican.va; “The Magnificat: Mary’s Own Prayer at therealpresence.org; L’Osservatore Romano; and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America at goarch.org

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