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.

Stations of the Cross : #WomenWereThere

Big in Lent, but available all year

Although most of our churches have the Stations of the Cross on their walls all the year round, the devotional exercise ‘doing (or praying) the Stations’ tends to receive more emphasis in Lent.  This is because it is a way to organise our meditations around ‘the way of the cross’ (another title for the Stations, Via Crucis in Latin, or Via dolorosa, the grievous journey).

the full set

In the days before travelling became possible for everyone and not just the rich, it was a way of going on pilgrimage without leaving your own parish church; nowadays it might remind us of donning a VR headset to enter a different reality.  Your imagination can take you to the place, make you one of the crowd, help you to understand what was going on.  It is a sentimental journey in the best sense; like in St Ignatius’ Exercises, you are trying to harness your senses and your sentiment to deepen your appreciation of what is going on, from the moment when Jesus steps onto the moving pavement of Roman imperial law, through the crucifixion and his agonising last hours, to the final moment when his poor body is lifted down from the cross and entrusted to Joseph of Arimathea to be placed in the tomb.

Devotional practices

The Church has many devotional practices apart from the official Mass celebrations and the Daily Office, and the Stations of the Cross are one of these.  They are approved of, but not part of the liturgical worship of the Church.  Some popular devotions are very old, some much more modern; the Counter-Reformation was a rich source of them.   Many devotional practices are linked to particular feasts : penitential processions in Lent (very important in Spain), processions for a local saint on his feast day,  specific pilgrimages (Montserrat, Levoca).  Processions to honour Mary, or as part of the celebration of Corpus Christi used to be common, years ago, and some people are trying to revive them.  But the Stations of the Cross have never gone out of fashion or needed reviving.

Franciscans and the Stations
outdoor station

Like all the best Catholic traditions, there are different stories about how, when and where this particular devotional practice began.  Retracing Christ’s steps, as nearly as they could be traced, in Jerusalem, is the obvious first version.  Then it seems to have developed (mid-fifteenth century onwards) as a series of outdoor shrines in sequence, varying considerably in number.  There is definitely a link with the Franciscans,which makes complete sense, given the Franciscan emphasis on the Passion and responsibility for the Holy Places, along with a gift for making religion accessible and memorable; they are also responsible for cribs.  The order cannily acquired a Pope-sanctioned monopoly to install them inside churches in 1731, and at this point the number of stations was also fixed at fourteen.  British bishops were allowed to bypass the need to involve a Franciscan in 1857, presumably because there were not enough Franciscans in the UK at the time, and the right was extended to other bishops in 1862.

Genuinely popular devotion

As a devotion, it is much loved.  Of all the pious exercises connected with the veneration of the Cross, none is more popular among the faithful than the Via Crucis (Directory on popular piety, 131).  The fourteen pictures, surmounted by crosses, line the nave or aisles in every Catholic church and many others.  Many outdoor versons survive, some even in Britain, as in Aylesford Priory in Kent, so that there is actually an element of physical travel, even if brief.  Occasionally there is a fifteenth station, for the Resurrection, but usually they start with Christ before Pilate and his condemnation, and end with his body being laid in the tomb.  When the number was fixed, so also were the scenes, though there is (and clearly always has been) some local variation.

Changes to the line-up

Some people are dubious about some of the Stations, because not all the elements are narrated in the Gospels.  Only eight of the Stations have exact Gospel references.  Pope Saint John Paul II introduced the ‘Scriptural Way of the Cross’ on Good Friday 1991, which he then used many times, and this is the version that Pope Benedict XVI endorsed and promulgated in 2007.  There is also a ‘New Way of the Cross’ popular in the Philippines, though not yet officially recognised.  These new versions are intended either to bring the narrative closer to the Gospel narrative or to allow for more emphasis on certain aspects of the Passion, but I think they are missing the point, and there is no rush to exchange the traditional Stations for the new version.  After all, we do have the exact Gospel narrative read out to us repeatedly in Holy Week, but the traditional Stations of the Cross are a folk retelling of the story of the Passion.  This is one of the things which gives them their value; they do not limit the narrative, but try to consider the events of Good Friday in a warmer, more human way.

A way to tell the story effectively : Stations 1 to 3

This is reflected in the classic story-telling techniques we can see in the narrative of the Stations, and especially in the non-Gospel elements. The narrative starts, as I said, with Jesus stepping onto the Roman judicial process like a conveyor belt.  His fate is literally sealed by the authorities, and he sets off on a quest which will end with his death.  He collects the cross in the second station, a crucial token or symbol, and the overwhelming presence in the background from now on.  The third station :  he falls, for the first time.  This fall is nowhere in the Gospel narrative; in the Stations, Jesus falls three times (stations 3, 7 and 9).  Of course he does;  this is a story, and the hero is doing something amazingly hard and difficult.  His suffering has to be made manifest.  Story elements very often come in threes : three sons, three princesses, three bears, three pigs, three aspects of the wolf-grandmother in Red Riding Hood (ears, eyes, teeth).  Three temptations in the desert; three denials (and later, three declarations of love) by Peter;  and now three falls, so that we realise how heavy the cross is, how tired the Lord is, how near to death and no chance of rescue and escape.

Jesus falls three times
Assembling the group : Stations 4 to 6

At the fourth Station, Jesus meets his mother.  The canonical objection to this is that it is out of sequence, because Our Lady is mentioned as being present at the foot of the cross, but here this encounter is nearer to the beginning of the story, because it is so important and it emphasizes how unable to help everyone is, even the person who loves him so much.  Her grief strengthens ours.

outdoor station of Simon helping Jesus

The fifth station is Simon of Cyrene being compelled to help Jesus (Mtt 27.32, Mk 15.21, Lk 23.26).  John’s Gospel does not include this detail; indeed, he stresses that Jesus went out ‘bearing his own cross’ (Jn 19.17).  Simon is the classic passer-by who is roped into the story; he has come in ‘from the country’, he has no idea what’s going on, he is constrained to help, he would rather not be there, but you don’t argue with the Romans.  As countless sermons and indeed commentaries on the Stations have said, Simon is Everyman; he represents us, and we aspire to do freely and lovingly what he was forced into.

Veronica coming to help

So here is a male helper; now we have the sixth station, and we need to balance the story, we need a female helper.  The sixth station is Veronica, who comes up of her own volition and wipes Jesus’ face.  We know nothing definite about her at all; she may well be pure invention; but she has a valuable role in the story as a representative of all the ministering women who are taken for granted in the story of Jesus’ life and death.  For me, this is one of the real values of the Stations of the Cross.  They put some (even if only archetypically) female representation back in the story.  Here is Veronica, identified at various times with the woman with the haemorrhage, the wife of Zacchaeus, or even Martha of Bethany.  She wipes Jesus’ face, covered in sweat, blood and tears.  One theory suggests that Veronica was invented as the back-story of the vera icon (see what the syllables did there), the piece of cloth, to encourage more pilgrims to see the miraculous relic.  I don’t think the image on the cloth is the most important part of this story; I think the more important message is the compassion and love shown by the action.  But Veronica loses her place in the Stations in the papal rewrite and in the Filipino version.  

Halfway : Stations 7 and 8

The seventh station is the second fall.  Repetition without change, so the story is darkening towards the climax.  Even with Simon’s help, Jesus is too weak to keep walking securely. 

another outdoor station : Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

The eighth station is when Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, a meeting in Luke’s Gospel (23.28ff) though not in the others. The women are weeping for Jesus, but he warns them to weep rather for themselves and for their children.  Luke gives a similar warning by Jesus on three separate occasions : he weeps over Jerusalem as he approaches it (19.41f),  and some days later warns those listening to him of the coming fall of the city (21.21f), this second time again with a particular female emphasis (‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days’ (v.23) – and how can we not be reminded of those poor women in the attacked maternity hospital in Mariupol).

Moving swiftly to the end : Stations 9 to 14

The story has speeded up now that the cast is all assembled.  The ninth station is the third fall, and by all the rules of story-telling, this means that the end is coming.  By the next station, we are in the setting for the last scene, and events follow swiftly.  Jesus is stripped (tenth station), he is nailed to the cross (eleventh), he dies (twelfth), he is taken down (thirteenth) and laid in the tomb (fourteenth).  These are the traditional stations, a sequence of actions (or pictures) rather than words, and the women are there, prominently, in four of them.  In three of them, the woman is in the very title of the Station.

was ever grief like mine?

The fourth one I would add is the Thirteenth Station, where Jesus is taken down from the cross, because traditionally his body is brought down and given into his mother’s arms, as in the classic Pietá.  The awkwardness of the pose is part of the point; you can’t put a grown man comfortably on the lap of his aging mother, but of course she would want to hold him.  If you bear in mind the relative sizes of the figures, it is fascinating to see how different artists have tried to solve this problem.  Mary is an almost looming figure here, bigger than the body of her son.

Writing the women out of the picture

So there are many women present and crucial in the traditional line-up of the Stations.  People praying the Stations will find others like themselves, even the women; this is a genuinely popular devotion, reflecting the (whole) congregation as well as the crowd in Jerusalem that day.  The net result of both the rewrites, however,  is to reduce the incidence of women. In the new stations, only the meeting with the women of Jerusalem is kept in; and Jesus is shown in the Twelfth (Filipino Eleventh) Station entrusting Mary and John to each other.  Otherwise it’s all man-to man encounters, with Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate and so on.  This is the same pattern as in the Gospels, where Jesus is unusual in being happy to speak and spend time with women.  It always makes the apostles uncomfortable (cf. Mtt 15.23), one reason why the women hover on the edges and do not come forward until the men have all gone away.

 
…but they were there

We know that the women were there. You have to read between the lines of the Gospels and pick up every casual reference, but it is clear that Jesus’ group of wandering scholars and hangers-on included several women, even if we hear almost nothing about them. Until the end, that is, when Matthew, Mark and Luke all remind us of their continuing presence : Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. (Matt 27.55).  These women had followed Jesus and ministered to Him while He was in Galilee, and there were many other women who had come up to Jerusalem with Him.  (Mark 15.41).  But all those who knew Jesus, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things.  (Luke 23.49).   John names the four women around the cross, but keeps his cast small.  We have already noted his omission of Simon of Cyrene.

Many women

These are not just a few women, they are many, even ‘many other’, so we have a substantial female presence here in Jesus’ life and work, doing all the background stuff that everyone takes for granted.  Luke explains much earlier that there were women in the group, indeed an essential part of the group : the Twelve were with Him, as well as some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities : Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s household manager Chuza, Susanna, and many others. These women were ministering to them out of their own means (Luke 8.1-3).  Luke notices women more than the other Gospel writers, and I know it’s only pious tradition, but I do wonder whether it’s because he was a doctor, and so possibly slightly more observant and less hidebound, possibly also aware of the value of observing and recording as he went along.  Presumably, as well as paying for everything, they have also been doing the washing, the cooking and all the other things included in ‘ministering’, but we only rarely hear of them speaking or doing anything out of the ordinary, except when Jesus takes their part, as he does when Mary of Bethany chooses to sit at his feet rather than doing some more ministering.

#WomenWereThere

I think one reason for the enduring appeal of the Stations of the Cross is the (restored) presence of the women in the story.  They stay present in the story as long as they possibly can, helped by their unimportance and relative invisibility.  They cannot give any comfort beyond that of love and prayer, but they are determined to do that.  They hang about, unable to go away, even after Jesus has died; when Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury the body, the women are still there even after he has finished and gone :[He] departed.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre (Mtt 27.61; Mk 15.47). The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments (Lk 23.55f).  They  leave only when they have to go and prepare the things they will need to lay out the body, and to observe the sabbath rest day.  Then they hurry back even before first light.  We know what happens after that.  Jesus appears to the women and changes their mourning into dancing, as the psalm says (29/30 v.12, that wonderful resurrection psalm).  They have earned their place in the Stations of the Cross.  Long may they keep it.

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. 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.