The Whole Picture
"Mary’s song is a moment of realization, when her mind is opened, and she understands".
Virtually all Italian people of my generation are familiar with a book by the 19th century Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis called Libro Cuore, “Heart”, in English. It was one of the recommended readings during primary school and even if its appeal already was waning when I grew up, it still was extremely popular. The book takes the form of a diary punctuated by letters and stories, one might say parables. It is set some 20 years after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy (1861), and remarkably devoid of any religious reference whatsoever. It had the clear pedagogical aim of replacing Christian values with civic virtues: love for the homeland, respect for authority and for parents, spirit of sacrifice, heroism, pity for the humble and the unhappy. The characters of the short stories are children who in several cases die heroically to help soldiers during the war, protect a member of their family against burglars, give their place to someone else on a lifeboat – or make extraordinary sacrifices, as in the story of the child who travels alone from Italy to Argentine to find his mother. The characters are painted vividly and there is freshness about them which somehow redeems the paternalistic and sentimental tone of the book. Despite its many flaws, it retained its hold on Italian collective imagination and provided a shared narrative that strengthened the sense of belonging to the young nation. Having lived for many years in three countries, I have become very aware of these shared narratives, these stories which people keep telling to each other and to themselves and define what, ideally, it means to be Italian, or French, or British. We are only too mindful of the drawbacks of nationalisms, and yet also acknowledge the importance of a shared sense of identity to foster our contribution to the common good and weave our personal stories into the wider history.
This example can be useful to make sense of what happens in the scene of today’s gospel which describes the way in which Scripture works, how it is meant to impact the lives of Christians, how it weaves individual lives into a greater narrative.
At one point in her song Mary praises the way in which God “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their heart” (Lk 1.51). This sentence resonates with the Psalm number one which explains that those who meditate on Scripture day and night not only prosper personally but become part of the assembly of the righteous, that is the People of God. On the contrary, those who neglect the meditation of Scripture, just like the proud denounced by Mary, are scattered “like chaff that the wind drives away” (Ps 1.4) and thus exclude themselves from becoming part of the community. A confirmation that Mary belongs to the first category is that the “thoughts of her heart” are constantly occupied with “treasuring up” all the events of her life in the light of Scripture – twice Luke tells us that she kept “pondering” or “revolving” them in her heart (Lk 2.19,51).
I told you how the Libro Cuore was meant to provide models, stories, examples which Italian people could meditate on and apply to themselves so that they could not only live better lives, but also connect their individual lives to the history and the destiny of their country. Despite being translated in several languages, the fact that its characters were all Italian meant that it could really speak only to Italian people.
This is the way in which Scripture also works in what Mary is doing in today’s Gospel – and yet here we also find an intriguing difference from Libro Cuore.
Scripture too, after all, is a collection of writings concerning a tiny nation in the Middle East, almost all its characters are Jewish, all are supposed to be the descendants of one man, Abraham, and all are possessed by the unshakeable certainty of belonging to a people with a special destiny and significance for the whole of humanity. Incidentally, this is a people which was scattered, exiled, persecuted and suppressed more than any other in history, and yet, thanks to its tireless and fierce meditation of Scripture has retained a unity and identity almost unique in world history.
Unlike Libro Cuore, however, Scripture functions in this way not only for Jewish people, but for people of all cultures, nations, tribes, languages beyond all national borders. Think of it. All of us here today take for granted that it talks to us and about us, we identify with the characters described by Mary: her ancestors are our ancestors, we consider ourselves descendants of Abraham, we are the Israel of whom God has mercy, the hungry that God fills with good things, the lowly he lifts up, those who fear God, those who call Mary blessed and rejoice with her in calling God our own saviour. This is particularly true of this song, the Magnificat, which we sing daily as if it applied to each one of us personally: I magnify the Lord and I rejoice in him because I recognize his blessings in my own life, the great things he does for me, his mercy for me, his faithfulness to his promises to me.
This explains the enduring appeal of the scene in today’s Gospel. A 13-year old girl and a mature woman are at a defining junction in their lives and try to makes sense of what is happening to them. They both belong to the category described by Psalm 1, those who find delight in reading, meditating, savouring the Psalms, the writings of the Prophets, the Torah. These are the stories in which they look for the meaning of their lives – specifically here for how their respective pregnancies and the circumstances that surround them make sense when interpreted in the light of the way God behaves and speaks in Scripture.
What is happening here is exactly the same process which Luke describes in the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples of Emmaus at the end of the Gospel: first a moment of confusion – something has happened which we cannot make sense of; then the meditation of Moses and the Prophets. Then apparently nothing, until at one point the puzzle comes together, all makes sense – the moment when, as we are told, the minds of the disciples suddenly were opened and they understood the Scripture (24.32,45), connected the dots, and saw the whole picture.
Mary’s song is this moment of realization, when her mind too is opened, and she understands: I am only a young and inexperienced girl, I cannot offer any earthly safety to this child who is destined to impact the history of the whole world – but when I meditate on it in the light of Scripture, I see that this is exactly how God has always raised liberators and saviours: Moses was born from a slave, Samson and Samuel from barren women; David was a boy shepherd, Elisha a farmer. He is a God who looks with favour on people who are seen as insignificant on human standards. So Mary finds joy and peace in this thought, and thus she can overcome whatever sense of inadequacy, fear, anxiety she had felt up to that moment.
This is how Scripture works. We listen to it at least every Sunday, daily if we take part to morning or evening prayer – or we try to read it on our own. We know that it talks about us but how it applies to our lives is not always immediately clear. For this we need the circumstances of life, especially times of challenge, frustration, distress, doubt, fear. If we have kept revolving Scripture in our heart “day and night’, as Psalm 1 says and as Mary does, then, at one point, it will all make sense, we too will connect the dots – our minds will be opened. Mary’s words will be true of our lives just as much as they were of hers – our spirit too will rejoice in God our Saviour because for us too the Mighty One wants to do great things.