Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 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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The story in the Advent psalms and readings, Year B

The Advent readings
woman with finger over mouth
No singing in church

Some of us can hear our readings and our psalms live at Mass, but even if we can only have broadcast services or reading the text for ourselves, studying them is an encouraging thing to be doing, particularly during this strange no-music Advent which seems to be what most of us are condemned to. So I thought I’d go through them and see what’s particularly interesting about this year’s readings, now that we have started Year B, which is the year when we read our way through Mark’s Gospel.

First Reading  in Advent is always one of the prophets

Luckily the texts are rich in encouragement and beautiful images even without any musical help.  Each year of the Lectionary, A, B or C, has its own distinct set of readings.  Year A (which we just finished at the feast of Christ the King) starts with the early part of Isaiah, his vision of everyone streaming towards the lifted-up Temple with joy and excitement.   Year B (which began with the First Sunday of Advent) starts with a reading nearly at the end of the book of Isaiah, the longest prophetical book of the Bible, and indeed the longest book of all, sixteen chapters more even than Genesis.  Year C, when we reach it next Advent, goes through some of the minor prophets instead of Isaiah.

Isaiah, First Sundays of Advent A and B

The Book of Isaiah starts with an account of God’s anger at the faithlessness of Judah, its downfall along with the whole of Israel, and a call to repentance.  Then in the second chapter, the mood swings round completely to an almost breathless call to everyone to ‘come up’, the great call to Jerusalem, which is the Year A reading (and we also have it as a regular reading in the Morning Prayer cycle).  The Year B reading in contrast comes from the sixty-third and -fourth chapters, a long way away from the beginning of the book.  Modern scholarship reckons that Isaiah is written by at least three writers, possibly by even more, but I don’t need to discuss that now, so for convenience, I’m just calling the author(s) Isaiah tout court.  As you might expect, the excitement of the early chapters has dissipated, and the tone is more realistic and regretful : this is all taking much longer than had been hoped in the beginning.  Now instead of all of us rushing to the mountain of the Lord, Isaiah calls on God himself to come down.  He describes how men have sinned and behaved as though they had forgotten God, but Isaiah knows that God has not forgotten them.  He reminds God that he is the Father, the Redeemer, the Lord of this people, and then he moves to a humble and intimate register : we are the clay, you are the potter.  It throws us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the version of Creation where God makes Adam out of dust; but the prophet’s object here is not to remind us of our lowly beginnings, but to remind God that he has a responsibility to us because he made us.

Antony Gormley’s little pot people, each made of a handful of clay
First Sunday B : Save me in your love

This is poetry, not prose (Isaiah is written in both), but it’s the tone which is fascinating.  It’s descriptive, not penitential.  ‘We’ acknowledge our guilt and sins, but we aren’t apologising, but rather calling on God to come and save his people, just because he made us and is responsible for us.  It’s almost like a challenge.

Psalm 79/80 : poetic form
Yggdrasil tree
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

The psalm (79/80) picks up this theme.  It’s an interesting psalm, one of the ones with a very clear poetic structure even in translation.  The first stanza is a call to God to come and help, and then there is a refrain : God of hosts, bring us back;/let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.  The next stanza explains how bad the people’s current state is, and repeats the refrain. Then the psalm takes a different course, and recounts the story of a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted by God in another place (the allegory is very clear).  It grew and flourished – and then God broke down the wall which kept it safe from all dangers.  Now it is in dire straits, and God needs to turn back to his people and make things right again (and, almost as an afterthought, we shall never forsake you again), followed by the refrain one last time.

Psalm 79/80 : turning round, turning back

We don’t have the whole psalm on the First Sunday of Advent B.  We have only the first call, then the request for God to turn back again to protect the vine, and then the last stanza about the man who will rescue the vine, interpreted for us as the coming of the Messiah, and the promise that we will never forsake God again, which looks less like an afterthought when the psalm is shortened like this.  We keep the Response as it is set in the psalm (more or less, depending on your Lectionary), but all the versions have the idea of movement back towards, and because half the movement is for us to make and half the movement needs to come from God, there is a beautiful idea of both sides turning back to each other. 

Second Reading and Gospel : stay awake!

Then we have Paul, thanking God for the strength of the Spirit among the Corinthians.  The Gospel is Jesus encouraging everyone to stay awake because we do not know God’s timetable.  Year B is Mark’s Gospel, but this is not the beginning of it, because that is the Gospel for the second week.  This  piece is just a few verses where Jesus encourages everyone to wait actively for what God is planning.  It is to set the mood for the whole of Advent.  Mark’s Gospel is probably the earliest, and certainly the most immediate and direct, where Jesus speaks very clearly and forcibly, repeating points to reinforce them.  So we get ‘stay awake’ four times in only four verses of Gospel, it’s like a bell clanging.  And because we can’t have music in church, here’s a link to the stunning Bach Chorale Wachet auf, the essential music for this season.

Second Sunday of Advent B : comfort now

The Second Sunday of Advent B is again Isaiah, but we have gone backwards, as this is from the middle section of the book, actually Chapter 40, where the tone changes to one of comfort.  This is where Handel’s Messiah begins, and for anyone that has ever sung it, it’s impossible not to hear the music when you read the words.  This is immediate comfort, not just hints of possible future solace : ‘Tell Jerusalem that her time of service is ended’….’shout without fear : here is your God’.  So the coming is not just to be expected, it is actually here.  The Lord is coming, mighty and victorious, but he is coming like a shepherd, cuddling a lamb, and we don’t need to be afraid any longer.  How does the psalm respond to this?

Sheep
taking good care
Psalm 84/85, a psalm of two halves

It is Psalm 84/85, which is a psalm of two halves, though we are going to use only the second half.  The first half remembers God’s mercy and forgiveness in bygone days, and appeals for them again.  It ends with the couplet which gives us our Response : ‘Let us see, O Lord, your mercy /and give us your saving help’, but because it comes after cries for help and fear of God’s anger, it feels almost desperate.

Justice and peace have – already – embraced

The second half, the part actually prescribed for us to use, has a totally different atmosphere; the psalm in its entirety is like a before-and-after picture.  It starts with confidence and serenity, describing God speaking of peace in the present, not even the future, tense.  ‘Mercy and faithfulness have met’ even before God starts to speak.  Everything is all right now.  This is a beautiful psalm, with a picture of life almost like heaven or Paradise garden.  We use this psalm for Australia Day because it is so idyllic.

Justice and Peace will embrace when the music stops
Second reading : St Peter : How long is a ‘day’?

The second reading is from St Peter, clarifying the difference between God’s time and our time.  The Lord is not slow, but he is patient, and he is giving us all time to reform before his return.  This must have been so difficult for the first Christians, and Peter’s words are impressive in their simplicity and honesty.  The apostles thought for a very long time that Jesus was going to come back in their lifetimes, and each of them had to work out how to handle the fact that he didn’t.  Particularly during Advent, Peter’s explanation and encouragement to patience are worth reading and rereading.

John the Baptist bursts onto the stage : Gospel

Then the Gospel cuts to the chase : this time the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, quoting precisely the bit of Isaiah that we have just heard, setting the scene, and describing the arrival of John the Baptist.  Mark doesn’t give us the (highly exciting) birth narrative, which is in the Gospel of Luke.  He simply reminds us of the prophecy and then says …’and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness..’ and we are on the way, because Mark has no birth narrative for Jesus either.  He wants to tell us just about Jesus’ life as an adult, what he did, who he met, what he said, and what happened, which is why it can feel almost breathless  (and count the number of times something happens ‘immediately’).

Third Sunday of Advent : Rejoice

We start the Readings for Gaudete (Pink) Sunday by going back to nearly the end of Isaiah again, this time celebrating a joyful prophecy of turning everything upside-down, with a hymn of exultation.  The Psalm is actually a Canticle at this point, because it’s the Magnificat, from Luke chapter 1 instead of the book of Psalms, and not even all of that.  We can’t sing it, so here’s another Bach link to the wonderful Netherlands Bach Society, singing the whole thing (if I can find good links, I’m going to put them in, because we’re all running short of music at the moment).  However, it picks up the exultation of the First Reading in what is probably an exact quote in the Hebrew, if only I could read it (My soul rejoices in my God/ My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour), and continues the topsyturvey motif, feeding the starving and sending the rich empty away.  Our Response is precisely the line which occurs in both texts.  It’s good to see the Magnificat here, because so far Mary has not figured at all in these Year B Advent readings, and indeed, if you didn’t know it was the Magnificat, there is nothing to tell you, as the Gospel for Third Sunday of Advent B is the beginning of John’s Gospel, just after the Logos passage, where he describes the arrival of John the Baptist (similar to Mark’s account last week, but fleshing it out a bit), and his account of himself to the Pharisees who challenge him and ask if he is the Messiah.

Fourth Sunday of Advent B : somewhere special for God to be 

So after three Advent Sundays, we are still poised waiting for something more than misty prophecies and gnomic denials.  But the Fourth Sunday is coming.  The first reading for the Fourth Sunday is from the book of Samuel, and is a little baffling to begin with.  We are back in the time of David.  He has just settled into his house, his enemies have all been dealt with by God, and David feels bad because the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent.  He asks Nathan the prophet whether he should not make better arrangements, and at first Nathan says yes.

Beautiful tents
some tents are spectacular, however
God’s promise to David

But God speaks to Nathan when he is asleep that night, to send a message to David.  God does not need David to build him a house.  He himself took David away from the sheep he lived among and has given him everything, from that day on.  The unspoken subtext is that if God wants a better house than David’s, he could create it in no time at all.   And then God makes astounding promises to David, about how he will plant the people of Israel in a place that God himself will choose and they will thrive; but as for David,  he will give him ‘fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth’, and when he dies, God undertakes to look after his children for ever.  It almost sounds like the promises in fairy stories until you realise that it’s the other way round and the fairy stories are in fact a pale imitation of what God is promising here.  David will have a House, like a Scottish clan or a European royal house, and God will always be in loco parentis to David’s descendants. 

Psalm 88/89 : God’s promises will be fulfilled

This is followed by Ps 88/89 (all the Advent B psalms are fairly close together), which is a celebration of God’s love and truth. The second and third stanzas are part of God’s promise from the first reading set to music, so that the prophecy is repeated, and the words of the Response express total confidence that God will keep his word.  The second reading is St Paul to the Romans, explaining that Jesus is the solution and revelation of the mystery and everything has happened according to God’s plan.  And finally we have the Gospel, taken from Luke (because Mark and John don’t do the birth narrative), and describing the Annunciation, explaining how Jesus is the fulfilment of precisely the prophecy we have had in the other readings, and tying everything together.  Mary gives her consent; the angel leaves her.  God has arranged the very special place for him to dwell in.  Mary is far more than just a container, but that was one of the ways in which her role was interpreted in the early days of the Church.  Her titles  in the Litanies include ‘Spiritual vessel’, ‘Vessel of honour’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Ark of the Covenant’, and so on. 

Annunciation
note the relative positions : the angel is asking, not telling
‘A’ virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph

I feel it’s almost a shame that we have to wait for the Fourth Sunday to get to this point, because the next thing that happens (liturgically) is the Christmas Masses (Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, Day), but I would like to have a chance to spend more time thinking about Mary at this stage.  What must it have been like for her?  We don’t hear anything about her mother in the narrative, only about Elizabeth; was she the only person in whom Mary could confide?   Mary must have been living with someone, even if her mother or father were dead, because she is so young, but we hear nothing about anyone else on Mary’s side of the family.   We hear (in Matthew’s Gospel, interestingly, not in Luke, where Mary is traditionally supposed to have had some input)  about Joseph’s disquiet, and generous decision to ‘put [Mary] away quietly’, after discovering that she is pregnant, but we are told nothing at all about Mary’s feelings.  All we have is her two sentences to the angel, and the Magnificat, that chant of joy and confidence, subversive and yet so orthodox (see how it mirrors the prophecy in Isaiah, and also the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2).  But I think back to being pregnant, the joy, the wonder, the trepidation, the excitement, the longing, and my heart goes out to that unexpected and unexpecting central character of the whole narrative of Advent.  Christmas is about Jesus; but Advent is surely about Mary.  We wait with her.

a beautifully pregnant Mary

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 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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