Mary's Magnificat is Christmas joy
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2002
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
The Joy of Christmas comes from the remembrance of tradition, the celebration of faith, the giving of gifts, the gathering of families and the meaning it brings to the human spirit.
The Third Sunday of Advent traditionally celebrates joy. It anticipates the wonder of Christmas. All around us society anticipates Christmas. Decorations go up early. Holiday parties take place weeks in advance. Some kids peek at the presents before they should. Next week at church we light the rose-colored candle and sing songs of rejoicing because the coming of our salvation is near.
The classic Scripture text to express this joy appears in the lectionary not this year, but next. Paul tells the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always. ... The Lord is near" (4:4-7).
But this is not the only Scripture that proclaims joy. For example, next week's readings say, "Rejoice always" (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and "I rejoice heartily in the Lord" (Isaiah 61:10). Those passages fit the traditional theme of Advent's third Sunday: joy.
This theme even appears in the responsory following the first reading. The lectionary still calls it the "responsorial psalm" for the day, but notice that the text is not a psalm at all. It does not even come from the Old Testament. Instead, after the first reading we will sing the Magnificat, the hymn Mary sang at the Visitation, according to Luke's Gospel (1:46-55).
As you can see, the "psalm" is not always a psalm. The 150 psalms of the Old Testament were composed over a long period of time and reflect different stages of Israel's history. Although they are traditionally ascribed to King David, it is more likely that a variety of writers composed these songs over many centuries. They are lyrics to songs. They were never meant to be recited.
Throughout the Bible, though, there are other songs outside the Psalter. For example, after Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea, they sang a song on the other shore (Exodus 15:1-6, 17-18). That song serves as the responsory following the third reading assigned for the Easter Vigil each year. On that same night, a canticle from Isaiah (12:2-6, 9, 21, 41) follows the fifth reading.
Other than that, the Sunday lectionary reaches outside the Psalter only once in the entire three-year cycle of readings for a song to follow the first reading. It happens next week when we sing Mary's Magnificat.
You remember the story. Elizabeth, considered too old to conceive a child, is pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary, a virgin considered incapable of conception, is pregnant with Jesus. Mary visits Elizabeth, who greets her with the words we still use in the Hail Mary, "Blessed are you among women." And Mary turns the attention away from her and toward God, where it belongs. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord," she sings.
Some Scripture scholars believe that the Magnificat started as a generic Christian hymn in the generation after Jesus died and before the Gospels were written. According to this theory, Luke took this song, already popular among Christians, and placed it on the lips of Mary in this part of the story.
The Magnificat praises God's attributes and deeds. It calls God a great Savior, holy and merciful. It praises God's deeds: filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty and coming to the help of Israel.
The lectionary gives us a refrain to sing, "My soul rejoices in my God." It sounds like the first line of the Magnificat, but it actually comes from the first reading: "in my God is the joy of my soul" (Isaiah 61:10). With this subtle insertion the lectionary breaks open the mystery of joy as if to say, "See, it happens here, there and everywhere."
The Christmas joy of the Magnificat is not just about Mary expecting her first child, nor about visiting Elizabeth her kinswoman, nor about the miraculous nature of their births. The Christmas joy of the Magnificat is not about giving or receiving gifts, about decorations or the first snowfall. It is about something else: the attributes and deeds of God. Our great God has shown mercy by feeding the hungry and confounding the rich. This is the Christmas joy of the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the prisoner - all those who have experienced the ultimate come-from-behind victory. God has reached down to save those who are lowly, and all generations will call them blessed.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron, and coordinates the Scripture column for The Catholic Key.