Canticles are poems found in Scripture. The Church has specially used the canticles in the Liturgy of the Hours. In Morning Prayer, twenty-five canticles of the Old Testament are sung over the four-week period. In Evening prayer, seven canticles of the New Testament are sung, one for each day of the week, taken from the apostolic letters and from Revelations. But it is the great Gospel canticles that are the climax of the Liturgy of the Hours. Both of them are found in Saint Luke and they are the Benedictus and Magnificat.
Of all the canticles in Scripture, the one that comes from the Immaculate Heart of Mary is the most beautiful and profound. In her words we can see how much she treasures God’s words in her heart. This was the canticle of praise that was forming in Mary’s heart while she was traveling to visit her cousin Elizabeth. It expresses the divine Word that she is carrying in her womb. It is a canticle of praise and thanksgiving, “the impulse of a joy craving for expression.” (1) The few lines the Mother speaks are full of much more meaning than is evident at first.
My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit exults in God my Savior.
Here our Blessed Mother directs all praise she is receiving from her cousin Elizabeth to God. St. Augustine says that “to magnify the Lord is to adore, praise and exalt His immense grandeur, His supreme majesty, His infinite excellence and perfections.” (2)
Notice how Mary does not say, “I Magnify,” rather she says, “my soul magnifies.” This is very significant since it shows that “she magnifies Him (God) from the utmost depths of her Heart and with her whole inner strength… (with) all the faculties of her soul—her understanding, memory, will and all the powers of the superior and inferior part of her soul, exhausting full inward and outward strength in order to praise, glorify and magnify her God.” (3)
Also, Mary blesses God in the name of all the souls who belong to her. How so? St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). In other words, God has given us everything in Jesus. St. John Eudes concludes then, that “in giving Christ to His divine Mother, He thus gave her all things and therefore all souls belong to her.” (4) So, as Mary says this she is thinking of all the souls who belong to her and she unites them to her praise to magnify God who has become man, out of love, in her sacred womb.
Mary then says, “my spirit exults in God my Savior.” Here she is referring to God, the creator of the universe, first of all. When she says “my Savior” she is referring to Jesus, the Redeemer of all mankind, herself included. So the Mother is rejoicing because her Savior “had come into the world to save and redeem her first and foremost, preserving her from original sin and overwhelming her with His graces and favors in such an abundance that He made her His mediatrix and cooperator in the salvation of all mankind.” (5) It is from God that Mary has received reason to rejoice.
Because he has regarded the humility of his handmaid.
The humility of our blessed Mother is that she recognizes her radical dependence on her creator, it is “human littleness before the greatness of God.” (6) This reminds us of the reply Mary gave the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). According to several Fathers of the Church, it was Mary’s humility that pleased God the most. St. Bernard said “she pleased God with her virginity but she conceived the Son of God through her humility.” (7)
After love, humility is the most important of all virtues. Jesus Christ taught us how much he esteemed this virtue and said “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29) and “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Aside from our Lord, it is Mary who best exemplifies true humility, true lowliness.
This is in direct contrast to the devil who sinned against God with his pride and arrogance. Satan was a beautiful angel created by God, but he boasted, “I will ascend heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). And “now a war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven” (Revelations 12:7-8).
What a striking contrast with the attitude of our Mother who calls herself the “handmaid of the Lord.” This might be why God has given the privilege of crushing the head of the serpent, the devil, to the Queen of the humble.
From this day on all generations shall call me blessed.
This is one of “the greatest, most celebrated and most important prophecies that was ever made or ever will be made, announcing to mankind the infinity of admirable things that God will accomplish everywhere on earth in every age and everlastingly in heaven on behalf of the Mother of the Redeemer, in order to make her known, loved, served and honored throughout the world.” (8) Without a doubt it can be rightly said that ever since Jesus Christ became man, the name of Mary has always been blessed. They go together, and without Mary, we would not have Christ.
Notice that Mary says that “all generations” will bless her. This is related to Jesus’ everlasting Kingdom which the Archangel Gabriel had announced to Mary in the Annunciation, and which all Jewish people knew was one of the signs of the Davidic kingdom: “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:33). This points to the “primary reason for the perpetuity of Marian devotion: she will be praised and blessed for her divine maternity until the end of time, because she is the Mother of Jesus.” (9) Every time we pray a Hail Mary, we fulfill this prophecy; indeed it has always been fulfilled because Mary is praised without interruption. In truth, all of creation fulfills this prophecy, even the demons. For, as St. John Eudes says, they are “constrained to acknowledge her inconceivable charity whenever they are forced to abandon their prey by virtue of her intercession.” (10)
It was Saint Elizabeth who was the first to bless Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb… and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42,45). Mary is also blessed because God has exalted her above all creation by crowning her the Queen of heaven and earth. And she is blessed because God has chosen her to be the mother of his son and she has become forever the Mother of God.
One author expresses it this way: “O many times blessed! Blessed first of all because thou hast believed. Blessed, secondly, because thou are full of grace. Blessed thirdly because thou art blessed. Blessed fourthly because the Almighty hath wrought great things in thee. Blessed in the fifth place because thou dost possess the joys of motherhood together with the glory of virginity. Blessed, last of all, because thou art incomparable, having been and always to be without equal.” (11)
Yes, all generations will bless you Mary because God has broken the mold with which he made you. Because choosing for Himself the best Mother, there can therefore be none greater than you!
The Almighty has done great things in me and holy is his name.
Mary continues her canticle by recognizing that she has been privileged because God has done unique things in her. It is only logical to say that she must be aware of what those things are. Most authors agree that she was aware of the virginal conception of Jesus and her divine maternity, that she would be the Mother of God. St. Augustine writes: “It is a great thing for a virgin to be a mother without cooperation of man. It is a great thing for her to have borne in her womb the Word of God the Father, to have clothed Him with her own flesh. It is a great thing for her who characterizes herself as a handmaid to become the Mother of her Creator.” (12)
But in this phrase she is also referring to the great things God has done and will do for her: her Immaculate Conception, her eternal predestination with the Son, her role as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix of all grace, and her Assumption into heaven. These are great gifts that only the Mother has received.
Furthermore, in the second part of this phrase, “holy is his name,” Mary is referring to Jesus. It reminds us once more of the Annunciation where the Archangel Gabriel told Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). This is familiar to Mary since in the Old Testament the presence of God is almost always symbolized by a shadow or cloud: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34). A cloud covered the Ark of the Covenant. With the incarnation, the glory of the Lord filled Mary, and she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. She became the new Ark of the Covenant, carrying within her God most holy. It is precisely when acknowledging the presence of the “holy, Son of God,” within her womb that Mary says “and holy is his name.”
We too can join with her in adoring God when we pray the Magnificat, and when at Mass we join with the choirs of angels in heaven in their unending hymn of praise, singing “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.”
His mercy is from generation to generation upon them that fear him.
Here begins the second part of the canticle. Mary has already praised God for all he has done with her and now she shifts to the “communal plan regarding all men awaiting salvation, that is to say, those who fear God, the humble and the poor.” (13)
Here Mary makes another prophecy; God’s mercy will endure from generation to generation on those who fear him. “To fear God, in the Old Testament, is synonymous with serving Him, obeying Him.” (14) Here Mary is referring precisely to Jesus “who is uncreated mercy itself.” (15) There is no doubt that God’s greatest mercy is the Incarnation. The Holy Father commenting on this in his Encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, said, “at the very moment of the incarnation, these words open up a new perspective of salvation history.” (16) St. John Eudes says, “all the effects of the mercy which our Savior has wrought in men from the beginning of the world up to this moment, and will continue to produce for all eternity, have proceeded and will proceed from the adorable mystery of His Incarnation, as from their source and primary origin.” (17) This is one of the reasons why the Church has traditionally recalled the moment of the Incarnation three times a day with the prayer of the Angelus.
Mary is the “one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God’s mercy.” (18) She was chosen to be the Co-redemptrix and assist Jesus, she alone “knows its price, she knows how great it is.” (19) With Jesus, the “Uncreated Mercy,” she is the Mother of Mercy.
“Her sacrifice is a unique sharing in the revelation of mercy, that is, a sharing in the absolute fidelity of God to his own love, to the covenant that he willed from eternity and that he entered into in time with man, with the people, with humanity; it is a sharing in that revelation that was definitively fulfilled through the cross. No one has experienced, to the same degree as the mother of the crucified one, the mystery of the cross.” (20)
Yes all generations will bless you, Mary, and remind you with your very own words, Mother of Mercy, that his mercy is from generation to generation upon those that fear him. It is said countless times every day as we finish praying our rosaries: Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae…
He has shown the power of his arm; he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
An interesting note about the verbs used by Mary in this and the next two phrases is that they are in the Hebrew perfect tense. This suggests “the past conduct of God in the history of the Chosen People, a conduct, however, in the present and in the future as well… They are, then, gnomic aorists: they express that which God does in every age, even if Mary has in mind specifically the preceding history of the people of God.” (21)
When Mary talks about the power of God’s arm, she is making reference to the way that God acts, which is much different than the standard of the world. This brings to mind biblical examples like the young, unarmed David killing Goliath, or Judith who killed Holofernes, the commander of the Assyrian army, with his very own sword and in this way saving the Israelites. “Mary is describing the operative plan of God unfolding according to criteria quite different from those of man and of the world, as it is clear from the history of the Chosen People.” (22)
This different way of operating is manifested most clearly in the Incarnation. When many of the Israelites were expecting a Messiah who would be a great King and would lead them out of their oppression, who would come to liberate them from Rome, there appears the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Christ, the only Son of God, living among his creatures, being born of the Virgin Mary, living for thirty years in total anonymity, under obedience to his Mother in Nazareth. How difficult it was to understand that the strongest oppression one can be under is sin and that only the Messiah had power to liberate from this bondage. Who could understand it? Only the humble, only those who would be as Mary, the handmaid of the Lord. It was to them that Jesus referred when he said, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yes Father, for such was thy gracious will” (Mt. 11:25-26).
Yes, Mary understood more than anybody what the Incarnation meant. She who had never been under the bondage of sin, but had lived in a world oppressed by it could say with her whole heart: “He has shown the power of his arm; he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.”
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, he has raised up the humble.
Mary was well versed in the history of Israel. She knew the fate of the powerful and proud Saul, cast down from his throne, and the story of David, the shepherd chosen by God to become King. She knew that the Davidic covenant was promised to a son of David who would have an everlasting kingdom. And it made perfect sense to her to hear from the archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation: “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever” (Lk 1:32-33). “Precisely in Mary, then, God realizes His most disturbing and definitive intervention in history, raising an obscure, humble descendant of David to the paternal throne, to rule a kingdom that “will have no end.” (23)
Also, in Christ’s life we can see how he fulfils this phrase, “he has raised up the humble.” As his disciples he chose twelve uneducated men, most of them fishermen, on whom he founded his Church. And he sent them “throughout the land to destroy a religion based on conformity with human inclinations, a religion rooted for several thousand years in the hearts of men, and to establish instead a completely new religion which is opposed to the first and contrary to all the inclinations of human nature… and they emerged victorious, they triumphed gloriously over the great, the powerful, the wise and all the monarchs of the world.” (24)
Mary, pray that we will learn from the humility of Christ and from your humility.
He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent away empty.
In this phrase, first of all, Mary must have been referring to herself. She was the first “hungry” one that God has filled. “The Blessed Virgin possessed such perfect faith and such an ardent love for the Savior who was to come on earth, that her hunger, her thirst and her desires were much greater and livelier than the desires of all the patriarchs, prophets and saints who had preceded her or who were living in her time.” (25) That is why it has often been said that before Mary conceived Christ in her womb, she conceived him in her heart.
Mary must have said the Magnificat many times and Jesus surely must have heard it from her mouth. In the beatitudes Jesus repeats many of the ideas that his Mother had first uttered when his heart had relied on her heart for its growth and nourishment, when he had been in her womb. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt 5:6).
How were they going to be satisfied? How were the hungry to be filled? With “good things” refers to messianic goods, “those spiritual goods of the Kingdom of God, such as grace and freedom, the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, interior peace and joy of spirit, sanctity and eternal life.” (26) No one has been so rich in messianic goods as Mary.
“The same words are also understood to mean all the poor whose hearts are detached from the things of earth, who love and embrace poverty for the love of Him who, possessing all the treasure of divinity, willed to become poor for love of us so that we might possess eternal riches.” (27)
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy.
In this phrase Mary is starting her conclusion of the canticle and she declares that in Christ all the promises of the Old Testament have been fulfilled, that the long wait for the Messiah is finally over. “Here is the fulfillment of the predictions of the prophets; this is the fruition of the truth of the promises of God.” (28)
The Israelites had been chosen by God to serve him, “that is to say, as the people that would have served God, advancing His worship in belief and in deed—monotheism and monolatry—in the midst of all other polytheistic and idolatrous peoples, in expectation of the Messiah Savior.” (29)
As he promised to our Fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.
In this final phrase, Mary remembers all of salvation history and the different covenants God made with his people. She remembers the promise of God to Adam: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed: she shall crush your head and you shall bruise her heel” (Genesis 3:15). Also, the promise God made to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless all who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:2-3). She remembers also the covenant God made with David: “when your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom” (2 Samuel 7:12).
Mary remembers every one of the covenants God made with his people and how in Christ all the promises by the Father had been fulfilled. Christ was the eternal and final Word of God. “The line of development of the redemptive plan begins with Adam and Eve, our first parents, is channeled through Abraham and through the Davidic lineage, and terminates in Mary, the Mother of the Messiah Redeemer.” (30)
St. Paul understood clearly that Christ is the seed: “To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed as if referring to many, but speaking of one alone, says: ‘and to your seed,’ which is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). (31) “The realization of the promise consists in the sending and the presence of the Messiah in Mary. This is the great, culminating, definitive act of salvific history.” (32) And this act could not have been possible without the Mother because “from the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in who the Son of God would become incarnate and from who, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world.” (33)
In the Magnificat, Mary shares with us her heart’s joy and after proclaiming the wonderful things God has done with her, she summarizes the history of God’s chosen people and how with the Incarnation every promise God has made has been fulfilled. The Magnificat is truly an extraordinary canticle, uttered by the Mother of the Redeemer who shared with him his mission of salvation. That is why the Church has wanted us to model our prayer after it, has wanted us to pray, in union with the Immaculate Heart, this, the greatest canticle of all, every afternoon at Vespers. And she invites us to stand as we pray it to give it “the same solemnity and dignity as is usual for the hearing of the gospel.” (34) Let us model our hearts after the heart of the Immaculate one as we pray this blessed canticle every day.
“O Jesus, only-begotten son of God, who has willed to become the only Son of Mary and to accept us as her children and thy brethren, make us partakers, we humbly beseech Thee, of thy wondrous filial love for her, as well as of her admirable love for Thee, that we may love Jesus with the Heart of Mary, and Mary with the Heart of Jesus, and that we may have but one heart and love with Jesus and Mary.” (35) Amen.
(1) Galot, Jean. Mary in the Gospel, The Newman Press, Maryland, p. 70.
(2) From Sermon de Assumpti. Eudes, St. John. The Admirable Heart of Mary, P.J. Kennedy and Sons: New York, p. 279.
(3) Ibid, 280.
(4) Ibid, 281.
(5) Ibid, 283.
(6) Manelli, Stefano M., All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed, Academy of the Immaculate, Massachusetts. p.177.
(7) Eudes, 289.
(8) Ibid, 291.
(9) Manelli, 178.
(10) Eudes, 292.
(11) John Gerson quoted in Eudes, 293.
(12) Augustine quoted in Eudes, 295.
(13) Manelli, 179.
(14) Leal quoted in Manelli, 180.
(15) Eudes, 301.
(16) Pope John Paul II, Dives In Misericordia, n. 94.
(17) Eudes, 302.
(18) Dives 9.
(20) Ibid, 96-97.
(21) Manelli, 181.
(22) Ibid, 181.
(23) Ibid, 183.
(24) Eudes, 314.
(25) Ibid, 317.
(26) Manelli, 186.
(27) Eudes, 317.
(28) Ibid, 322.
(29) Manelli, 188.
(30) Ibid, 189.
(31) Note: other translations use offspring instead of seed.
(32) Manelli, 189.
(33) Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.
(34) From the Introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours, n. 138.
(35) Eudes, 330.