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The “good news” of the people of Israel was rooted in a spirituality of remembering. They were a people who continually looked back. Indeed, in the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the definitions of sin centered about the unwillingness or inability to remember.
Thus it is not surprising that Mary’s prayer should emphasize remembering. She notes how on a personal level “the Almighty has done great things for me.” But she also mentions the great acts of God on behalf of His people: “He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy.”
It was not a sterile, empty reminiscence about which she speaks. Rather, the memory about which she speaks is more dynamic. Above all, it taught her people that even in their darkest days God was present and faithful to His promise: “...the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and His children forever.”
Concretely, they looked back to the Exodus-experience and discerned how God was ever-present and providentially guiding His people. Such afforded them strength, for example, to endure the hardships of the Babylonian captivity. And in today’s world, when the Church seems to be showing forth blemishes and deep wounds, we might look back at our own, sometimes difficult, past trials. And under grace, we perceive the same truth that God remains faithful to the promise given by Christ to His disciples: “I will be with you all days.” In a very real way, this is a constant thread running through the redemptive history of God’s people, namely, the truth that God is ‘‘faithful’’ to His promises.
Mary also proclaims her personal pilgrimage to the past, recognizing the “great things” God has done for her. In our age, which seems to emphasize a future orientation, I believe we should learn from her and look back on our own lives and discern the many blessings God has bestowed upon us. Often we fail to look back at the natural blessings that we have received from God: our health, our ability to love, our family and our upbringing.
In all of these instances, God is exercising His providential care for us as individuals -- and we should be grateful.
But there are also the “great things” God has done for us on the level of faith. By baptism, He has inserted us into His own life. St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing Christ’s birth, wrote: “The incarnation accomplished the following: that God became human and the humans became God and sharers in the divine nature” (Eph 3, Lectio 3).
For those who have fallen, we may have experienced the joy of God’s forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And through the Eucharist, we are absorbed into the heart of Christ, so full of love and compassion. Finally, we must never forget the gift of faith and the strength it provides during our difficult days.
In focusing upon memory, I am trying to bring to consciousness what St. Augustine once observed: namely that the source and foundation of hope is to be found in remembering. Thus, for example, when the Psalmist was restless, distressed and wandering about in darkness, he wrote:
When my soul is downcast,
I remember you...
For far too many, the words of T.S. Eliot have become enfleshed in their personhood: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.”
Part of the birthing process of bringing forth Christ to our world is to become beacons of hope to our world: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who has promised is faithful” (Heb 10, 23).
Ours is a call to witness to hope by our lives, ever conscious of the words of Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing...that sings the tune -- without the words, and never stops at all.”Mary’s prayer then leads us to focus on mercy -- again a virtue so necessary to our modern world. We will confine ourselves to two simple observations. The first is that the present Holy Father maintained that there will never be true peace until nations learn to be forgiving and merciful. The second is from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Rich in Mercy” in which he writes: “The Church seeks to practice mercy toward people through people and she sees in this an indispensable condition for solicitude for a better and ‘more human’ world, today and tomorrow.”
Msgr. Thomas McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.