When the Virgin Mary consents to the news from the Angel Gabriel that God had chosen her to be the Mother of the Savior, the Gospel of Luke tells us that, after the angel departed, she made haste to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Gabriel had told her that her cousin was also miraculously with child. Before this, Elizabeth had been thought barren, which was a source of great shame for her. But as Gabriel foretold to her husband Zechariah in the Temple (Lk 1:5-25), she would conceive a son despite their old age, and their son would be called John, the forerunner of Christ.
Our Lady was always attentive to the needs of others, and would have wanted to be of assistance to Elizabeth as she prepared for the birth of John. But there likely was another reason for her decision to go quickly to the hill country for three months. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but did not yet live with him. It was dangerous for a woman to be discovered pregnant outside of marriage, and no one would have believed her story at that point – except Elizabeth. Only Elizabeth would have understood and rejoiced immediately at the encounter with Our Lady, mysteriously pregnant with the Christ Child. And so, it is with Elizabeth that Mary finds someone to whom she can safely break her silence and allow what she has been holding inside to pour forth as a song of joy and wonder, which is called the Magnificat.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on His humble servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has come to the help of His servant Israel for He has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” (Lk 1:46-55)
This is the longest quote in that we have from the Blessed Mother in Sacred Scripture, and it reveals her inner life – how she thinks and what moves her. She marvels at the goodness of the Lord to His people, His fidelity, and the way that He uses the smallest, the weakest, and the poorest (like her) to effect His will in the world.
The Magnificat is part of the daily prayers that priests and religious promise to pray each day as part of the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. This, along with the Mass, is the greatest prayer that can be offered to God, because through the Liturgy of the Hours the Church prays the Psalms and other prayers as a way of entering into the eternal dialogue of love that the Son offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Our Lady is an image of the Church, and so her hymn of praise expresses what the Church expresses as its members are drawn into the inner life of God Himself. By praying it along with her, we express our wonder at what the Almighty has done for us, by lifting us poor creatures up into the eternal Divine Embrace, the fulfillment of a promise of mercy that surpasses anything that we could have dreamed up for ourselves.