A friend of mine used to host a karaoke night at a local club. Aspiring singers would come from miles around for the chance to be Saturday night superstars, belting out songs from Sinatra to Springsteen while standing next to the pool table.
Most of the time, the performers tried to sound exactly like the original artists; the more they did, the louder the audience clapped. One woman evoked Céline Dion note for note; another, who’d taken the stage on a lark, gave up midway through her number. “This sounded so much better in the shower,” she laughed.
Although I haven’t sung karaoke in years, I’ve recently experienced that same sense of inadequacy, not in trying to recreate a Beyoncé ballad, but in (of all things) trying to pray the Magnificat — the song of Mary, found in Luke 1:46-55 and recited daily by the church as part of the Liturgy of the Hours.
This exquisite prayer is named after the Latin translation of its initial line: Magnificat anima mea Dominum. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary — who has just consented to bear Christ in her womb — exults when Elizabeth hails her as “most blessed among women … the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:42,43):
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Since the Middle Ages, the Church has breathed these words during evening prayer, remembering the radical and redemptive mercy of the Lord. The Magnificat is a victory cry for those oppressed by sin and suffering, a howl of joy in the face of night’s gathering gloom.
So, with such powerful lyrics, why did I feel like a second-rate karaoke performer when it came to the Magnificat?
My hesitation hinged on one particular verse: “From now on, all ages will call me blessed.” Wasn’t I stepping on the Blessed Mother’s line there? I don’t know half the neighbors on my block, and I couldn’t imagine “all ages” being remotely aware of my existence, let alone calling me “blessed.” This is Mary’s song; I should let her sing it and not try to harmonize. Right?
Not really. The Blessed Mother is too gracious to wince if we can’t sing one of her greatest hits perfectly. Moreover, there’s an even deeper reason that we can claim this song as ours.
Scripture scholars aren’t completely certain of the text’s authorship; many do not believe that Mary herself, or even Luke, composed the Magnificat. The words resemble those found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, in which Hannah gives thanks to God for at long last being granted a son.
Research suggests that the text was possibly composed by early Jewish Christians, with Luke adding verse 48 when he included it in his Gospel and assigned it to Mary’s voice. The Blessed Mother’s great canticle was likely a group effort, not a solo work; from the start, this was a hymn by and for community.
Although she didn’t necessarily write the song, Mary (like any great singer) makes it fully her own, while inviting us to do the same. “[Her] prayers … are characterized by the generous offering of her whole being in faith,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains (CCC, 2622). “The Canticle of Mary … is the song of both the Mother of God and of the Church; the song of the Daughter of Zion and of the new People of God” (CCC, 2619).
In his apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI reminds us that Mary both inspires and instructs, since she is “the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples” (Marialis Cultis, 35). While her call as the Mother of God is unique to her person, “she is held up as an example to the faithful … for the way in which, in her own particular life, she fully and responsibly accepted the word of God (cf. Luke 1:38) and acted on it” (Marialis Cultis, 35).
That action took — and through us, should continue to take — concrete form to reshape our world as the kingdom of God. Pope Paul VI observes that Mary “was far from being a timidly submissive woman … on the contrary, she was (one) who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions (cf. Luke 1:51-53)” (Marialis Cultis, 37).
Conceived without sin, Mary can sing the purest of tones in response to the divine call — but she does so as one who leads us in a chorus. She knows that the best songs are singalongs, and she teaches us to be not the karaoke stars of a Saturday night, but the servants of God to all, every day.
Gina Christian is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.