The scriptural commentary on the New Testament found in the authorized New American Bible suggests that the Magnificat, traditionally considered to be Mary’s hymn of praise in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s warm greeting, might possibly have been a hymn in circulation among early Jewish converts to Christianity. The hymn, now recited at daily Evening Prayer throughout the Church’s liturgical year, abounds in Old Testament references. The lengthier song of Hanna in the First Book of Samuel (2:1-10) is almost an exact anticipation of Mary’s verses. The writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job and Micah each have similar lines and parallel phrases.
And of course the Psalms abound in expressions that Mary would later echo. “Then I will rejoice in the LORD, and exult in God’s salvation (39:9).” “The LORD has done great things for us; Oh, how happy we were! (126:3).” “I will sing of your mercy forever, LORD and proclaim your faithfulness through all ages.(89:2).” “He has remembered his mercy and faithfulness toward the house of Israel (98:3).” “He raises the needy from the dust, lifts up the poor from the ash heap (113:7).” “For he satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with good things (107:9).” The LORD gives aid to the poor, but casts the wicked to the ground. (147:6).”
Whether the Magnificat was a spontaneous outburst of joy on the part of Mary as an expectant mother or whether it was a pious reflection of the later early Jewish Christian community grateful for redemption, the canticle certainly leads to one observation: somebody knew the Bible. The New American Bible’s footnotes on the Magnificat actually have thirty-seven references between Mary’s famed words and the Old Testament phrases that paralleled them. Clearly the Jewish community in which Mary was raised and the Jewish Christian community among which Mary would spend her final years took the Word of God very religiously – in both senses of that word.
Although the present day Catholic believer has a long way to go to achieve Scriptural proficiency, the Church community since the Second Vatican Council is clearly in a much better position to hear, read and pray the Scriptures. The three year liturgical cycle of Scripture readings at Mass and the directive that homilies be regularly Bible based has been an important step in the right direction. The Liturgy of the Hours, consisting of Scriptural prayers at specified times of the day, is encouraged and popular in many parishes. The Rosary, of course, if properly prayed, is a whole series of meditations on Biblical events in the life of Christ. Parish discussion groups on the books of the Bible are certainly much more available now than in the era that preceded Vatican II.
In the 1941 film, How Green Was My Valley, the father of the hard working Welsh coalmining family, played by Donald Crisp, bid his two sons who were leaving Wales for America to seek better employment to pause for moment while he prayerfully read a passage from Scripture to ensure for them a safe passage. The film elsewhere made it quite evident that the Bible, reading it and knowing it, was quite central in the life of this devout Methodist family. That scene would be rare in any contemporary American Catholic family (my own included).
Yet the Bible is the Word of God, inspired by God’s own Holy Spirit. Because of the Bible’s Divine source, the Council’s decree on the Scriptures, Dei Verbum, offers this clear instruction: “For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons (and daughters), the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.”
America’s Catholic Bibles need to be dusted off, cracked open, and devoutly and regularly read. This is admittedly a drastic change from the traditional Catholic experience locally and perhaps universally. Mary knew her Bible and the first Christians knew their Bible. Their example for later generations is clear.