Mary’s Magnificat and God’s unfinished project
A Reflection for Friday of the Third Week of Advent
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Today’s Gospel, the Magnificat, is prayed daily by Catholics around the world as part of Vespers, the evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. Rereading it today, I’m struck that so much of it is written in the past tense: God has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, lifted the lowly. My subconscious reaction is, “He has?!” When I look at the world, the proud, the mighty and the rich seem quite comfortable to me, just as they were in Mary’s day.
Why would Mary use the past tense here? She is, in part, alluding to her own pregnancy, which she has just announced to her cousin Elizabeth: “He has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She also has in mind the stories she has grown up with, of God’s covenant with the Jewish people: “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.”
We ought to help alleviate the suffering of those whom Mary says that God helps.
At the same time, though, this work of God, although described in the past tense, is not finished. As Mary sings, we realize that the incarnation is only one step of the saving work God will do through Jesus. He has yet to be born, to minister, to die, to rise.
It sometimes feels silly to observe Advent as a time of waiting for Christmas. The Christmas parties and songs on the radio have been in full swing all month long. The birth of Christ, we know, has already happened.
Yet the work of God is not accomplished. The mighty are still enthroned, the hungry still starve.
Where does this leave us in our Advent observance?
One lesson, from Catholic social teaching, is that we ought to help alleviate the suffering of those whom Mary says that God helps. Jesus warns us that we ignore them at our own peril, like the rich man who passed by Lazarus every day then had to beg him for a drop of water in the afterlife.
The other lesson is to realize that we are still waiting. We live between the incarnation and the eschaton, when God’s plan will finally be fulfilled. This is what we wait for all our lives, and it is this waiting and yearning we reacquaint ourselves with each Advent, even as we work to make this world a bit more like the one that is promised to come.