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.
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
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),
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.