The Magnificat – otherwise known as the Canticle of Mary – is a beautiful, ancient, scriptural “song” of praise spoken by Our Lady. You may have heard the word thanks to the wonderful monthly publication that goes by the same name, but do you know the prayer, itself?
“My soul doth magnify the Lord,” the Blessed Virgin Mary says to her cousin, Elizabeth, upon their encounter at the Visitation. With her canticle of praise and thanksgiving, Mary immediately redirects Elizabeth’s praise to its proper source – God, who in the Incarnation is fulfilling age-old promises and prophecies from the moment He made His Covenant with Abraham and established the Jewish people.
In the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, this prayer is recited daily at Vespers (in the evening), and it’s said that the reason for its liturgical placement in the evening is that the Annunciation and the Visitation both took place in the evening.
In the Vulgate (St. Jerome’s Latin version of the bible from the late fourth century), Luke’s Gospel (1:46-55) reads, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum…”
Notice that it is not melismatic or dramatized. Gregorian chant is not about the singers. It is sung prayer; multiple voices striving at one unified voice, crisp, yet haunting in its echoes through a vaulted space that’s evidently fitting for soaring praise of the Almighty.
If you are so inclined, here is a video of the Magnificat set to Gregorian chant notation. And if you’re extra enthusiastic about your Latin, here’s a pronunciation video I came across whilst putting this post together!
The Imagination in Intercessory Prayer: the Magnificat as Spiritual Magnifying Lens
The Blessed Mother truly is our model when it comes to… well… just about anything and everything in the spiritual life. Firstly, she is the first and most perfect disciple of Jesus, and therefore a model for all Christians. Second, she is the model woman – full of grace – feminine, patient, nurturing, receptive, gentle and delicate, yet surpassingly strong. This is a rich meditation for Christian women, but – I daresay – also for men who learn how to treat, speak to, and think about women. Moreover – and to my point, today – Mary is the perfect intercessor. We learn from her what it looks like to pray for others, in addition to taking our own prayers to her, that she might deliver them more perfectly to her Son. It makes sense that her Magnificat would be a prayer uttered during the Visitation – itself, an action of intercession. The Blessed Virgin Mary travels to her cousin, serving as a bodily monstrance – a human magnifying glass – that brings and shows Jesus to Elizabeth (and to the ears of John the Baptist in her womb).
I contemplate this latter concept of intercession as I offer prayers to God for so many of my loved ones – friends, family, and even strangers whom God has put on my heart to pray for. Perhaps this is a particularly feminine charism, though certainly not exclusive to women – to see and feel the weight of suffering and need for Jesus all around me – and to desire to intercede, as if (I imagine) as a magnifying glass, pointed from God’s gaze directly onto the face, heart and soul of my friend. Mary’s Magnificat gives us the perfect example of the posture of humility which is most pleasing to God, and even in her person she becomes a sort of magnifying glass, boosting and zooming-in our own intentions by asking her to gaze upon – and ask for – what we gaze upon and ask for.
This is simultaneously a reminder to me, that for my intercessory prayers to be efficacious, I myself must be in a state of grace. I myself must draw closer to Our Lady in the little things, in my own devotions, so that she might be more ready to listen to me. It’s all well and good to care about my friends in my heart, but if there is any way to make my prayers more efficacious – both through my own pursuit of holiness and my recourse to the Mother of Perpetual Help – I want in on it.
Scriptural basis for Intercessory Prayer:
- With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, (Ephesians 6:18)
- First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, (1 Timothy 2:1)
- Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. (Romans 10:1)
- Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; (James 5:14)
- ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ (Jeremiah 29:7)
- Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “O God, heal her, I pray!” (Numbers 12:13)
- “…but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)
- When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, “I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned (Nehemiah 1:4-11).
- Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:60).
The bible is full of examples of and exhortations to intercessory prayer. But we also know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is without equal in heaven. So, insofar as it’s possible for me to pray well the many intentions for others that fill my heart, I want to take them to God through Mary. Mind you, it’s nothing so crass as to suggest that Our Lady is some kind of utilitarian prayer hack. No. But she shows us how to love. And she loves us all so much, that when our love is properly oriented – I imagine – she can only want but to add her own, to perfect and magnify that love.
By the way… Men sing the Magnificat too
Because I love Dominicans, I love hearing men sing, and I believe the world and the Church need men to sing, I couldn’t resist one last video.
I encourage you to add this beautiful, ancient prayer to your repertoire. Let us pray for each other with and through Our Lady.
+ Ad Jesum, per Mariam + To Jesus, through Mary +