One woman’s voice : the Magnificat

Mary our mother and the Mothers of Israel

The women I concentrated on in my last blog  (Judith, Ruth, Esther, Deborah) are recorded with honour in the Old Testament.  They are regarded  as heroines and holy women, the Mothers of Israel; and they are our mothers in faith too.  Parallels between them and the Mother of Jesus are interesting and not hard to find and show.   But we would look in vain for a similarly extensive prayer from her.

someone’s holding up the words,  so she must be joining in the singing
Women’s voices in the New Testament

In the New Testament, it is even harder to find women’s words than in the Old.  Mary is recorded as saying astonishingly little, although she is present during so much of it.  In Luke she speaks four times, once in John, and we have none of her words in Matthew and Mark, though she sends Jesus a message that she’s arrived  (Mark 3, 31).  So the exchange with Elizabeth (in Luke  1, 39ff)  is very precious, even though it repeats whole lines out of previous songs, psalms and prayers.  Elizabeth’s words are incorporated into the Hail Mary,  and the Magnificat is part of Evening Prayer.  It is by far the longest piece of female speech in the New Testament. And it is brief.

Mary’s Magnificat?

It’s a (relatively rare) joy for me to write music for psalms that even mention women, so I particularly appreciate setting women’s words. And yes, I know that these are words fully in the tradition of the Old Testament, put into Mary’s mouth by the evangelist Luke.  Definitely mediated through a male writer, then, and deliberately reusing the language and tropes of earlier speakers, some of them women;  but tradition has always claimed these words as Mary’s own.  If Luke (according to tradition) painted her, they would have had time to talk; who else would remember these words, if she did not?  —    and in the end, they are all that we have. So I am taking them as women’s words.

A woman’s prayer from below

In the whole text, there is only one word indicating the speaker’s gender : ‘He looks on his servant in her nothingness’  or (different translation) ‘he has regarded his lowly handmaiden‘  (and the US version ‘for he has looked upon his lowly servant’ elides even that).  But what is distinctive about this song is that it written from below throughout.  This is a person without any power or rank speaking, and celebrating God because he is wonderful and does marvellous deeds; and is doing them, for her, now.

Living in the moment

The references to God’s actions are all in the present tense, not the future : this lowly person is totally confident that all this is happening right here, right now.  This is an interesting contrast to the appeals for help in the psalms, which are usually looking forward for relief (O Lord, hasten to my help…..O Lord, do not delay… O Lord make haste to help us , Ps 22/23  but passim really).

The text does not move forwards or back; there is no narrative; there is no sense of time other than the present.  Mary describes what is happening  at this moment to her.  There is one gesture towards the future: ‘Henceforth all ages will call me blessed’, but this is an immediate future which starts now, just as the one reference to the past is ‘the mercy promised to our fathers’, a past which is still continuing into now and for ever.

A world turned upside down

Apart from the absoluteness of the present tense, the other striking thing about the words of the Magnificat is their celebration of the reversal of human order.  Mary starts with a statement of fact: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ and then starts to celebrate the topsy-turvey.  God looks at his servant (Mary) and he is perfectly aware of her status; but guess what, ‘henceforth all ages will call me blessed’.  This is so extreme that it would be embarrassing or foolish if it were not true.  Then Mary refers again to God, because her future standing is not because of her, but because of him.  God is working wonders for her, he is wonderful, and his kindness is for everyone.

And it isn’t just Mary for whom he is turning the world upside down : ‘He […] scatters the proud-hearted […], casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly’.    Again the claim is stupendous : from their thrones, so not just petty important people, but the mighty of the earth, the sort of person Mary would only ever have seen at a distance, or possibly only heard about.  More reversal :’he fills the starving […] sends the rich away empty’.  Here is the option for the poor with a vengeance.  When you think about Mary’s status compared to ‘the rich’, this almost sounds like a joke (and that’s how Bach sets it in his Magnificat, with the music petering out into the hollow left in the bellies of the rich).

Historical context for Mary’s words…

The last verse of the Magnificat is like a doxology, and in it Mary places herself in the line of salvation history and shows that what is happening to her is the fulfilment of God’s promises from the beginning (our fathers) until the end of time (for ever).  To reduce the Magnificat to a neat three verses of Responsorial Psalm, the proud-hearted and the mighty are left out on Sunday, as are the last two lines, but all the rest is there (I said it was short).

…and parallels before and after

As a literary artefact, it is interesting to compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s song  in 1 Samuel 2.  Mary’s song is not special because it is so original; rather, it is important that it is part of a tradition of obedience to God,  of joyful surrender to his will.  It is special because it is the fulfilment of salvation history, not an isolated event.  The other literary artefact it chimes with is the Beatitudes.  Even the order is the same : Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God […] blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6,20ff).

Setting the words

As well as being all one tense, the Magnificat is all one mood, of exultation.  So I tried to keep the music simple but jubilant.  We need to remember what Mary is like at this point.  She is very young.  She is enthusiastic, exuberant, committed and joyful.  She doesn’t know very much about what’s going on yet, but her faith in God is so complete that she is prepared to leave it all to him.  She knows that her situation is unorthodox, to say the least, but that does not concern her, and, thanks to Joseph, it is not allowed to become an issue.  She will treasure every piece of information as it comes along, but she has not yet met Simeon and heard about the sword that will pierce her.  In a different cultural context, I think we might have had something specifically about the baby, but Elizabeth is the only person who mentions that.  She is (much) older,  and her baby is much bigger and moving about (‘leaping for joy’ Luke 1, 44),  a magical stage of pregnancy which Mary hasn’t reached yet.

a special baby each : compare and contrast

Elizabeth would have let Mary feel the baby leaping for joy in her womb, and suddenly Mary’s own pregnancy would have felt real.  With our first baby, until she started to move,  I felt as though she lived inside the ultrasound box at the hospital; only when I felt her move was I sure that she was really there.

I wanted the Response to feel like a natural spill-over of all the excitement in the verses.  I think it does quite effectively in the (new) CAN version.  The Response is tricky, because it starts with an unstressed syllable, but you don’t want to take the congregation by surprise; so that’s why the OZ and UK versions have a tiny introduction, which is rare for me, but seemed to work here. The US one is straightforward.

Hard to find a picture of Mary singing it
…the best I could find

It’s really difficult to find a good image of Mary and the Magnificat.  If you look at the covers for the different musical recordings of it, they show soulful, ethereal females,  actually a bit wishy-washy and almost without exception with their mouth shut;  even sometimes male figures (Christ or the composer).   What they do not show is a woman speaking, chanting or singing aloud in the fulness of joy.   I think this is a pity, as in the Magnificat we have an unafraid female voice just celebrating God’s greatness.  Sing it with joy and conviction.  This is not a silent blonde, with clasped hands, and eyes raised to heaven.  This is a real woman, who is so happy she can’t not sing.  What a wonderful, heartening role model.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.




Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.