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 rec