Friday, December 22, 2006

Magnificat anima mea Dominum

Third Friday of Advent
1 Samuel 1:24-28
1 Samuel 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8ABCD
Luke 1:46-56

Today's readings give us an interesting juxtaposition of new mothers. Just before the passage of the first reading, we have Hannah, who was praying in the temple so fervently for a new child that the priest Eli thought she must be drunk. In the first reading, then, we have Hannah returning to the temple, this time in gratitude for the child that God graced her with, whom she was now dedicating to the Lord and leaving behind to serve God in the temple; the responsorial is her hymn of praise that she sings, exalting the Lord for all the ways he remembers the downtrodden.

Luke's gospel, on the other hand, presents us with the young girl, Mary, who probably wasn't thinking much about kids at all before an angel showed up and told her that she was to bear a son; however, Mary's telling her family and friends that "an angel said it would happen" probably didn't get her too many more sanity points than when Eli watched Hannah's prayer. (Plus, Hannah willingly leaves her son at the temple; when Jesus gets left behind at the temple, it's inadvertent and the source of great consternation on the part of Mary.)

Shortly after Gabriel visits Mary, she goes to see her cousin Elizabeth and, while there, Mary also sings a hymn of praise, exalting the Lord for all the ways he remembers the downtrodden. This hymn, presented to us today in the gospel, greatly parallels the hymn sung by Hannah so many years earlier, but this just shows us the depth of Mary's immersion into her own scriptural heritage.

The version of Mary's, though, is the one most often used by the Church. In fact, it is called the "Magnificat" because of the Latin translation of the first line, and is recited every evening during the Liturgy of the Hours, the "official prayer" of the church. With its daily recitation, however, it becomes rather easy (at least for me) to lose sight of the truly controversial nature of this hymn. In fact, according to Benedictine oblate and author Kathleen Norris: The Magnificat's message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980's the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation.

And yet, how often do I even think about that side of things? Every night, somewhere around 5:22 (if I'm at the monastery) or maybe 6:47 (if I'm at the house in Louisville), I recite this string of words. Do I even notice what I'm saying? Sad to admit, many times I don't. Many times my mind is more on what we'll be having for dinner, or how I really liked that song we sang, or wondering where Sr. So-and-so is tonight, or any number of other things. Even if I'm not distracted with those not-so-prayerful thoughts and I'm actually thinking about what I'm saying, I generally still don't realize how "subversive" I'm being.

It's kinda like the Lord's Prayer that we recite shortly thereafter — do I really want God to forgive me in the same way in which I forgive others? Or perhaps to put it another way .... am I willing to forgive others in the same manner in which I want God to forgive me?

But then, every once in a while, something seeps through. God sneaks through the rote-autopilot to catch us off-guard and ask: "Did you really mean that?" Some bizarre little coincidence to make you realize that maybe you should pay a little more attention to what exactly it is that you're saying. But even when we don't realize, I think it still sinks in, somehow. It becomes such a part of our routine that we no longer think it's odd to think of "the hungry being filled while the rich are sent away empty" ... and so maybe then we're a little more willing to work for a time when the lowly will be lifted up, or even a time where swords will become plowshares.

Kathleen Norris, in that same article, says of the hymns of these two women: They are a poetic rendering of a theme that pervades the entire biblical narrative — when God comes into our midst, it is to upset the status quo. May we remember this as we daily recite the Magnificat, if for no other reason than to remind us to keep looking for ways that God, even today, upsets our status quo.

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