Maidservants, Rejoice!

Tuesday in the 4th Week of Advent: 1 Samuel 1:24-28, Luke 1:46-56.

As we approach our great day of rejoicing, the significance of our readings and the import of salvation history build and grow thick. We have been holding our breath, waiting for the Christ child to burst into the world, and these readings hit us like the burning in our lungs, desperate for the life-giving air just ahead.

Today’s readings leave me reeling, almost giddy with the knowledge that we get to take part in God’s great plan. Today, we hear Mary’s great Canticle, the Magnificat, the longest passage in the gospels attributed to her and something we chant along with her every night at Vespers. For many years, I thought of this as a slightly out-of-place, slightly stiff or formal prayer. It seemed odd to be coming from the young, pregnant virgin. But the readings today illuminate how Mary is the perfected maidservant of the Lord, offering Him rightful praise in a specific form handed down to her in the Jewish tradition. By tracing how Hannah prefigures Mary, much like other figures such as King David prefigure Jesus, we can see how the Christ Event transforms all who are caught up in His glory.

Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli (1665), Gerbrand van den Eeckhout | Wikimedia Commons.

Hannah is the mother of the great prophet Samuel. Like Sarah before her, Hannah was barren and taunted by her husband’s second wife because of it. She prayed fervently to the Lord for a child and promised to dedicate the boy as a Nazirite if God would grant her a child. She prays so fervently (yet silent, swaying with her lips moving) that the priest Eli thinks she is drunk and scolds her. But she explains herself to him and he sends her away with a blessing. She responds, “Let your maidservant find favor in your sight” (1 Sam 1:18a, NASB and NKJV translations). Lo, and behold, she conceives and bears the boy Samuel. Today’s first reading recounts how she returns to the temple with the boy, encounters Eli again, and leaves the boy there to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite. 

These facts alone make her a precursor to Mary: barrenness/virgin womb, God’s help in conceiving a child, a humble and prayerful demeanor as as a “maidservant of the Lord,” and giving birth to a great religious figure. But it is the beginning of the second chapter in 1 Samuel where we see the huge parallel today. At first I was flummoxed as to why the first reading wasn’t Hannah’s great prayer of thanks to God because of how it parallels the Canticle of Mary, but then I realized that it is actually the responsorial psalm! It’s very fitting, too, because Hannah’s prayer looks and sounds much like one of the Psalms, which were meant to be sung, not just spoken. We can recognize the similarities right from the beginning. Hannah begins, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God,” and Mary begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The two are not an exact match, and rightly so for Mary did not just repeat Hannah’s praise word-for-word (nor did Luke crib the text from the Book of Samuel!). They share a certain form in terms of their poetry, a certain amount of content, and a similar posture of exultant trust in the Lord’s power. Here is a quick look at their similarities:

Hannah’s Prayer Canticle of Mary
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. (1 Sam 2:1a) My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1:46-47)
There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. (1 Sam 2:2) the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. (Luke 1:49)
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. (1 Sam 2:3) He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. (Luke 1:51)
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. (1 Sam 2:4) He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1:52)
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. (1 Sam 2:5a) He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:53)
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, (1 Sam 2:9a) He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. (Luke 1:50)
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam 2:10b) He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever. (Luke 1:54-55)

As we look at these two paeans, over 1,000 years apart, we can see why Mary spoke in this formal way: much like Messianic prophecy is fulfilled in Christ, the “right praise” of God by His faithful maidservant is fulfilled in Mary. This formal prayer/song of praise is used when righteous Jewish women have been blessed by God’s mercy and through His power give birth to a person who changes the world. The Spirit of the Lord guides Mary to give praise in a way fit for the gravity of her role in salvation history.

The Visitation (1503), Mariotto Albertinelli | Wikimedia Commons.

As for what distinguishes the two, we can say that Hannah’s prayer feels like a capstone moment — it’s the song of vindication from the underdog who has been blessed with victory. You hear her mention many reversals of fortune: the mighty become weak while the feeble find strength, full people are destitute while the hungry are fat, barren women have many children while the one with many children is forlorn, etc. She recognizes that only by the power of Almighty God can these things happen, and she also recognizes that faithfulness to Him is repaid generously. Mary, on the other hand, establishes less of a posture of the vindicated underdog and more of the simple handmaiden made as firm and beautiful as marble by her faith in God. Those opening lines are just poetically beautiful: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant.” She opens herself up so personally, so truthfully. And she is in touch with the part of herself that communes with God: it is her spirit that is rejoicing and her soul proclaiming. She also realizes her place in salvation history here: “From this day all generations will call me blessed.” And I think it is this recognition that enables her to take on the formality of this prayer as well as the following lines that detail His work in previous generations: “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. … the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.” This is essentially the structure of the Canticle of Mary: a personal, soulful prayer of thanks followed by the recognition of the fruition of God’s saving power in the history of her people. This is a prayer all of us can say with her and thank her for giving us the words of “right praise.”

All of our Advent themes are intertwining as we approach Christmas: anticipation, justice, patience, praise, recognition. But today’s readings demonstrate that the mystery is much deeper and more mystical than mere reflections can appreciate. Any type of “appreciation of themes and meaning” falls far short of coming face-to-face with the majesty and grandeur of God’s plan. This is where forms play a role: for instance, Mary inhabiting and transforming an ages-old psalm of praise as the mystery elevates her. Forms and formality play a huge role in our Catholic experience of our faith for this very reason. The mysteries lived out in the Mass achieve a level of call and response that echoes our deepest yearnings for God and His for us. The forms of the prayers and songs at Mass ride within the great river of praise as passed down from Noah and Abraham until now. I guess what I’m saying is that while I love a completely personal, charismatic, and spirit-filled experience of God and our faith, I truly believe that the forms of our prayer, the rituals of our sacramental life elevate us and our experience of the mysteries of our faith. More than simply enriching our faith lives, the forms are essential because they achieve a beauty of expression that is missing without them.

COVID-19 has made it difficult to fully embrace the forms of communal worship we are accustomed to. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to our Christmas morning Mass, to rejoicing and proclaiming as one Church that our Lord has been born.

Mass of Saint Giles (c.1500) Master of Saint Giles | Wikimedia Commons.

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