While I was in grad school, before I became a Christian, I read Julian May’s novel Magnificat. While I liked the novel, I didn’t have the slightest idea what the title meant. This is a perfect demonstration of my intellectual situation during that period of my life. I had already received one degree from a top-rated academic institution and was on my way to earning another. On paper, by secular standards, my education looked excellent. At the same time, I knew virtually nothing about most of the major texts that had shaped the civilization in which I lived, or about theology, philosophy, or numerous other topics of supreme importance. This is what our educational system does to young minds.
But onwards to the topic of the post. The Magnificat is a poem from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It is the words attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary after she visits hers kinswoman Elizabeth:
While there are those like my grad school self who have never heard of it, there are also many people who may have the opposite problem. Any text that one reads and hears too many times can become too familiar, until one loses sight of its meaning and power. After we’ve encountered this particular prayer hundreds of times, we may lose sight of its revolutionary character.
Let us try to put ourselves back into the time and place where this passage originated. Mary was peasant woman in a small village in an insignificant province at the fringes of the Roman Empire. Neither she nor any of her family or friends had any power. They were constantly pushed around. A whim of the Emperor, such as a desire to take a census, could uproot them and force them to travel great distances at considerable inconvenience.
Faced with this situation, Mary was neither despairing, nor angry, for bitter. Instead she made a triumphant statement of confidence. God is watching over each of us, God knows our sufferings and needs, God will protect us always. Chesterton once said that it is not meek to say that the meek shall inherit the earth. Similarly it is not humble to insist that kings will be toppled from their thrones and the humble will be exalted.
In our day and age, when questions of power structures and authority swirl around us in countless forms, we need the simple and powerful faith expressed in the Magnificat more than ever.