Labour of love : another Magnificat

Magnificat anima mea

Setting women’s words is a rare pleasure for a church musician, so I tend to grab any chance I can find. I’ve set the Magnificat before, because it comes up occasionally in the readings at Mass (not often enough). When it does come up, it’s usually not in the place of the psalm but as part of the spoken readings. I’ve blogged about it before too (see here). However, it is offered as the Responsorial Psalm for the Feast of Our Lady’s Presentation in the Temple (November 21st), and somebody wrote to ask for a setting.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour, with Elizabeth

I’m always delighted to get these special requests and do my best to help. We’ve completed the Sunday three-year cycle now, so these are my best chance to do something new, and it’s always interesting. Sometimes there’s a version that is pretty close among the Sunday psalms, and I just need a new response; sometimes the verses have been grouped differently; sometimes whole verses have been left out or put in; sometimes you just have to start again, wondering why those in charge of the Lectionary thought this might be a better or even remotely singable version.

The Presentation(s) in the Temple
Presentation Mary
Mary as a tiny girl arrives at the Temple, with Joachim and Anna in support

There are two Presentations and two Feasts, and this can lead to confusion. You can easily tell which is which in the pictures, because Mary’s Presentation, in November, shows her as a little standing figure on her own (after all, she is three, see later),

Jesus’ Presentation as a babe in arms, Mary and Joseph to the left, Joseph with pigeons

and the other is the Presentation of Our Lord, sometimes just called ‘The Presentation in the Temple’, and that’s the one with a swaddled babe in arms, held by Mary (sometimes and Joseph), being received by Simeon (sometimes and Anna). The age of the baby shows you clearly who is being Presented.

Who is my mother?

The feast of Our Lady’s Presentation in the Temple is an interesting one. There is no information about Mary’s early life in the Gospels. When she walks on-stage in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a young woman, engaged to Joseph and already mysteriously pregnant, but she appears out of nowhere. Mark has no birth narrative at all; Mary appears only at the end of chapter 3, arriving from we don’t know where, with Jesus’ brethren, and sending a message to Jesus where he is sitting surrounded by a crowd,”‘Your mother and your brethren are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brethren?'” (Mk 3:31f), and goes on to declare that anyone who does the will of God is his mother, brother and sister. So far, so baffling.

Mary’s early life, according to Luke…

Luke has much more on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, but not much information about his mother. She is a virgin (or a young woman, not my topic for today), betrothed to a man named Joseph, but at least she has a name. God sends an angel to her with two lots of startling news, first about her own child and then about her cousin Elizabeth’s. Mary agrees to God’s plan and rushes off to see Elizabeth, who comfortingly already knows her news and greets her with joy. The Magnificat is Mary’s answer.

…but not according to John

John, like Mark, has no birth narrative, and Jesus is already fully-grown when Mary is first mentioned, at the wedding at Cana in John’s second chapter. They are attending the wedding separately, but after it Jesus and his disciples spend a few days with Mary and the brethren.

Tradition, legend, and the Protevangelium of James

So there is nothing at all about Mary’s early life in the Gospels, but what we have instead is quite a bit of pious tradition and folklore. Some of it is based on the Protevangelium of James, dating from the end of the second century AD, non-canonical but ‘immensely popular’ in the Middle Ages, according to Simon Gathercole, who published a new translation of it for Penguin in 2021. We were lucky enough some years ago to visit Chora in Turkey where they have a whole series of mosaics of the Virgin’s early life, which were beautiful; I think you can no longer get into the church because it’s being turned into a mosque again (it’s been both in its long history, like Hagia Sophia).

Joachim and Anna
Immaculate Conception : angel comes to tell Joachim about Mary (at rear), then Joachim rejoices with Anna (foreground)

And it’s very easy to see why the Protevangelium of James was so popular. It starts with Joachim and Anna’s anguish over their infertility, and the text is full of lively and engaging dialogue. Joachim comes back from a tented desert retreat (lasting forty days, naturally) to find that Anna is pregnant and has already promised the baby to God’s service (just like Hannah and Samuel).  There are angel messengers for both Anna and Joachim to explain what is going on. The birth of Mary takes place six months later. Anna first asks whether the baby is a boy or a girl, and then declares,’My soul is magnified today!’

A very special baby

The baby Mary walks at six months, seven steps to her mother’s breast. Her mother swears that she will not set foot on the earth again until she goes to the Temple.

Joachim and Anna
Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora) : good parenting

Her parents make her a sanctuary in her bedroom and keep her safe and unpolluted by unclean foods, they have a party for her on her birthday and invite the nation of Israel and all the priests, who bless the little girl. Everyone predicts great things for her. Joachim and Anna discuss when to take her to the Temple; Joachim thinks she should go when she is two, in case God gets angry, but Anna easily persuades him to wait a year, so that she won’t miss her parents.

When she is three, they take her to the Temple. The priest welcomes and kisses her. Then he blesses her (‘The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations’). I especially like the next bit. The chief priest sits her down on the third step of the altar. ‘She did a little dance, and the whole house of Israel adored her’ (p.10 in Gathercole’s edition).

and here she is dancing adorably at the top of the steps
What Mary did next

This is non-canonical, but it’s written by someone who had lovingly observed three-year-old girls; it’s detailed, realistic and relatable. Mary’s parents go home and disappear from the story; she lives in the Temple, fed by an angel, until she is twelve when the priests all have conniptions at the thought that her periods might start, so they seek among the widowers for a suitable protector for Mary.  A miraculous dove flying out of his staff and perching on his head indicates that Joseph is the chosen one. He’s an elderly widower with sons (a useful explanation of the inconvenient ‘brethren’ in the Gospels), and is initially reluctant because he’s afraid of being laughed at. The priest threatens him with God’s anger and being swallowed up by the earth, so he agrees to take Mary; but he needs to go away for work, so he takes her to his home and leaves her there. She is engaged in spinning the purple and red wool for the Temple curtain (presumably the same one that will be rent from top to bottom at the Crucifixion), when the angel comes to visit her,  – and the story continues as in Luke, although there is no Magnificat in this text. But the ‘magnify’ word comes back again when the high priest says to her, as she hands over the spun thread,’Mary, the Lord God has magnified your name’. By now Mary is sixteen, though there’s no indication of where the time went.

Joseph comes back and finds Mary six months pregnant and is very distressed. There is lots of very human dialogue, with Joseph angry and resentful and Mary bursting into tears, and once Joseph is persuaded that Mary is innocent, both he and she have to defend themselves at length against the Temple authorities.

The feasts of Our Lady

I’ve covered this in some detail because it was so popular, and because the feast of Mary’s Presentation used to be much more important than it is now in the Roman church.  The Orthodox have kept some feasts that the Roman Church has lost or reduced in importance over the years. Of the Twelve Great Feasts among the Orthodox, four are for Mary and eight are about Jesus; the Catholic Church has invented various new feasts for Mary (Queenship of Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady Help of Christians and so on), but downgraded the older ones (presumably on canonical grounds, just like the changes to the Stations of the Cross to leave out the ones with central female characters).

The four Mary feasts in the Orthodox list are her birthday (corresponding to the nativity, in the list of Jesus feasts), the Annunciation, her Presentation and the Dormition.  The idea of ‘showing forth’ was very important in the early days of the Church (before the Roman/Orthodox split), which is why the Epiphany was originally a bigger feast than Christmas itself. The Orthodox Church preserved this emphasis. Mary’s Presentation is her Epiphany.  I need to mention St Sergius here, because we all owe him a debt. He was Pope from 687 to 701 AD, after two other people were claiming the triple crown (it’s a complicated story, but Sergius turned out to be the unity candidate everyone could agree on). He gave even more solemnity to the four Our Lady feasts by adding solemn processions to them. In the Roman Church, this feast of Mary’s Presentation was downgraded later (because of its non-canonical nature), but we are still very grateful to St Sergius because he introduced the sung Agnus Dei at Mass (he was a singer himself), and I do love a good Agnus Dei.

Different Magnificats

But when we have the chance to sing Mary’s own words (and yes, I know they have been mediated through a male evangelist and years of tradition, but they are all we have), we need to take it. I had already got a version for the Australian and New Zealand Lectionary, because my friend in Adelaide had asked for it two years ago, and I was happy to find that the UK and Eire words were very similar. The Response needed some tweaking, and I thought I could simplify the tune in a couple of places, but we weren’t starting from scratch. I don’t have the Canada words, unfortunately, so I can’t write that version until someone helpfully sends them to me (I haven’t got a Canada Daily Missal until one of my family has a chance to go and get me one); I hope you’ll be able to cobble something together out of the other three. And the US version of the words is so different that I started again with a different time signature.

Different Responses

In the prescribed readings, the Magnificat comes with two possible Responses, one taken from the words themselves and the second a sort of comment. I prefer the first, as the second is a bit long for the congregation to absorb so quickly; but there are five verses in this version, so they’ll know it by the end anyway. Just make sure you’ve checked with your celebrant if he has strong opinions about which one to go for.

Making the music dance too
This is a very damaged mosaic, but I think it shows Mary dancing (with the stars under her feet?)

When I set the Magnificat, I try to allow the exuberance of it to shine through. It’s such a joyful and affirming set of words; it isn’t tidy or meek, it’s exultant and young. It’s full of boundless hope and excitement. It has a helter-skelter quality; it’s overtly revolutionary. It needs almost to fall over itself as it heaps up the list of God’s promises. It’s irregular, but that’s a plus: God’s goodness is uncontainable. So it needs to go with a swing, and I’ve tried to make the Responses pick up with a swing at the end of each verse.

Another one will be along shortly

The main difference between this version of the Magnificat and the other Sunday version, which we will shortly be singing, as it comes up in Advent Year B Week 3, is that the Magnificat for the Presentation is complete, and the Advent one has only three verses. The Presentation Magnificat has all five verses, but the first one is only two lines long; and it has a choice of Responses, as I said, whereas the Advent Magnificat takes a verse from Isaiah as its Response. These are all quite small changes, but they matter a lot when you are trying to sing it! It’s tricky when v.1 is the one that doesn’t follow the pattern that you are trying to establish, but I’ve tried to keep the run-up to the Response the same throughout, so that the congregation feels confident. Sing it loud, sing it proud. Some of the versions are more bouncy, some more stately, but this is the showing-forth feast of the Theotokos, after all. It needs to be jubilant.

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bread of heaven, cake, muffin, scone, or hearth cake?

The bread of angels :  Honey, that ain’t no scone

Last Sunday’s First Reading is from the First Book of Kings, part of Elijah’s story. He has just fled for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab,  and has gone to hide from retribution (after slaughtering all the priests of Baal) in the desert. He falls asleep in despair, unable to see a way out for himself, but an angel wakes him up, with a jug of water and something to eat.  He eats a little, and goes back to sleep, but the angel wakes him again and insists that he has more to eat and drink, to strengthen him for ‘the journey’ (whereas Elijah had been hoping just to die quietly). He eats and drinks, and then walks for forty days and nights (where have we seen that before?) till he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God. And the story moves on.

Elijah, angel and bread
Elijah with the angel… and supplies

The prophet Elijah

I love this reading. Elijah is one of the most human and engaging of the prophets anyway, because his narrative is more practical than most. God has to keep stepping in to feed him, because he concentrates on being a prophet and forgets to worry about his own needs until it’s too late. His story starts in I Kings 17, and is a corking read, which I warmly recommend, with heroes, villains, food-delivering ravens, a wicked queen, slaughter and smiting, fire from heaven and all sorts of excitement.  There is a great cartoon, courtesy of Welsh television, available on the internet here, which uses Mendelssohn’s Elijah for part of its soundtrack (good call).

I want to focus on one tiny element, though, because it was what struck me on Sunday.  The angel touches him to wake him up, and tells him to get up and eat.  ‘He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water’ (1 Kings 19.6, Jerusalem Bible).

Bread in corner
The bread is bottom left
Catering for Elijah

This manages to be both vague and oddly specific.  The same thing happens earlier, when Elijah has no food and there is a drought and a famine.  God tells him where to go, and adds ‘I have ordered the ravens to bring you food there’ (1 Kings 17.4).  The ravens duly supply  ‘bread in the morning and meat in the evening’ (1 Kings 17.6).  When the stream dries up, God has thought ahead : ‘Up and go to Zarephath! […]. I have ordered a widow there to give you food’ (1 Kings 17.9).  Elijah goes off, asks the widow for water, and as she goes to fetch it, he calls after her to bring him ‘a scrap of bread in your hand’.   That ‘scrap’ is interesting; it’s not the usual word for a piece of bread.  Other translations have ‘piece’ or ‘morsel’.  She tells him that she has ‘no baked bread, but only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug’.  She is fetching fuel to cook that into a last meal for her son and herself, ‘and then we shall die’.   Elijah tells her to go ahead, ‘but first make a little scone of it for me and bring it to me, and then make some for yourself and for your son’.  He promises her that the meal and the oil will not be finished before God sends rain again.  She believes him and does as he asks.  Later in the story, the son dies, and Elijah brings him back to life, the first time this happens in the Bible.

Elijah, widow and son
Elijah restoring the resurrected son to his mother
What has the angel actually brought him?

Being a baker myself, I find this really interesting.  It doesn’t sound like a scone to me, more like a flatbread, but then Elijah tells her to make ‘some’ for her little family.  The only ingredients are flour of some kind, oil and water : no yeast, no raising agent, so not a scone.  (She must have put a little salt in it, though.)  So far I have been using the Jerusalem Bible translation, but I thought it might be interesting to see what the other translations might have to offer.

A cake is a loaf is a bread

What about the angel’s catering?  Mostly the translators seem to go for ‘bread’, but there is also ‘cake’, ‘a cake of bread’, a ‘bread cake’, a ’round loaf of bread’.   The same set of words occur in what Elijah requests from the widow.   They are all trying, but they are floundering.  The International Standard Version has, egregiously, ‘muffin’, and the Douay version has ‘hearthcake’, which is possibly the best for those who know what that is, but overwhelmingly I think what we have here is translators not knowing very well what they are describing.  The ’round’ seems to come from the more literal Aramaic translations, and probably reflects what was familiar, but it’s very difficult to make ‘a round loaf’ (not to mention a scone) if you bake it on hot coals or hot stones, especially with no raising agent.  You’re much more likely to end up with something more like an oatcake or a bannock, something you can make on a griddle or a hearthstone.  The Georgians and Turks make lavash, the Mexicans have tortillas.  You roll or pat them out to cook quickly, and then you can tear them into pieces or roll them up.  For a loaf that we might recognise as such, even a flat loaf like focaccia, you need yeast (or raising agent of some kind) and some sort of oven.

Viaticum, journey food

This is food to strengthen Elijah for his journey, like the Passover bread for the Exodus, which is also unleavened and quick to cook.  He doesn’t take it with him; he is described as eating it all before he goes, marching for weeks on one meal, but if this wasn’t a hero story, maybe he could have packed some, because it would fold down easily.  The practical problem would be to stop it getting mouldy.

A scone is not bread

Scones are different.   They seem to be a natural cause for debate and disagreement, from how they are pronounced (skons or scoanes), to whether you put the cream or jam on first (depends whether you’re from Devon or Cornwall; I just put on first whichever is thicker).  But they should always be light, which is why you need either yeast or baking powder or bicarbonate of soda or cream of tartar.  And they tend to be baked in an oven.  They are smaller than a loaf of bread, though of course bread can be divided into small chunks for speed of cooking (bread rolls), and this can lead to smaller bread chunks being referred to as scones, like Irish soda bread.  If you cook those on a griddle, you might even end up with soda farls (from the old word for a quarter, like farthing).

There’s another sort of scone which you can cook on a griddle.  That’s a drop scone (always pronounced ‘dropskon’ with the emphasis on the first syllable).  These are made from a sort of batter (hence ‘drop’), rather than a drier mixture (like Welsh cakes, say, probably very similar to the ‘raisin cakes’ that David has distributed in 2 Samuel 6.19).   Drop scones in old recipe books are often called Scotch pancakes, but that name seems to have died out as ‘Scotch’ has been replaced by ‘Scots’.  But they are very similar to what Americans call pancakes, which has also led to confusion.  Scones strike again!   Let’s not even mention the different understandings of ‘flapjack’.

I say baking powder, you say something different

Bread and baking terms are as confusing as the names for fish, and vary considerably across even a small geographical area.  It’s always fun to find out the local word for a bread roll, but you will need to ask an older person quite often.  It’s not just shape or size, it’s often linked to a particular glaze or finish.  Baps in the Midlands are always flour-dusted and soft, cobs are golden and crusty, and so on.  Loaves can be plaits (Kent), bloomers (everywhere south), cobs, tins, or other names, but are mostly currently described by what they are made from (‘wholemeal’, ‘white’, ‘brown’, ‘rye’, ‘sourdough’ etc.)  ‘Roll’ seems to be the nearest thing to a generic term for ‘small hunk of bread’ (though it’s definitely southern rather than northern British), and I’m surprised to find that no translation offers that to Elijah.  Maybe it sounds too dainty, because you wouldn’t eat part of a roll and then lie down again. 

But how could you resist a drink of water in a cutglass goblet in the desert?
Griddles, girdles and bakestones

And you really want something more rustic and a bit less shaped, if it’s been made on a griddle or cooked on a hot stone among the ashes.  What sort of bread can you cook on a griddle?  That’s a whole other group of possibilities, from the drop scones to singing hinnies, pikelets, crumpets, oatcakes and muffins (the UK sort, not the US).  But none of those is really bread, and drop scones need an egg where the others mostly use yeast.  We want to think of something more like Indian breads, I suspect, or the Turkish bread I’ve already mentioned.  An unleavened, possibly slightly tough, sort of pizza base, cooked in a frying pan if a griddle is not to hand.  This would tear into something like ‘scraps’, but I wouldn’t ever call it a scone.

Wesh cakes
My griddle’s bigger : we can do seven Welsh cakes at once
The Heavenly Diner or Carry-out

Of course none of this matters very much.  I do love the idea of God running a staff restaurant for the angels, from which he can feed deserving (and undeserving) mortals, like Elijah repeatedly here, or like the manna in the desert.  This seems to be the general understanding in the Old Testament : ‘Mere men ate the bread of angels’ (Ps 77/78.25) ‘You gave them bread from heaven’ (Nehemiah 9.15).  Bread is vital, so if God’s people cannot make it for themselves out of what he supplies, he will actually supply the made bread himself.  Not to lack for bread is a sign of divine favour.  We tend to think of the angels as not needing bread, but that’s a modern idea.  Everyone needs bread, so there’s obviously bread in heaven for the angels, and it can be sent out in case of need.  This whole web of ideas is behind all the bread images and discussions in the New Testament, underpinning the feeding of the multitudes and of course the Last Supper and the revelation at Emmaus.

Le pain juste

I still think ‘scone’ is not a good translation, but I am feeling much friendlier towards ‘muffin’.  The classic English muffin is indeed baked on a griddle, and is a bit more bread-like, but it needs ingredients which would not have been to hand….except I suppose in heaven you would be able to find anything you needed.  It’s not right as a translation here, because it brings in all sorts of unnecessary ideas, and is an intrinsically comic word, which doesn’t help.   But Elijah would have wanted something reasonably familiar and definitely substantial, for the journey he is about to embark upon.  I think I’d go for something like ‘bannock’, which sounds rustic and wholesome but has the big advantage that most people will have some rough idea but not anything too specific.  I do think that any Bible translation would be seriously improved if a few more women were involved in the discussion.  Some of them would know how to cook.

Classic Scottish bannock


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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