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.

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The women at the Passion and Resurrection

Taken by surprise

Sometimes, when you’re listening intently to the readings at church, a sentence bounces out in front of you and demands new attention and a fresh look. In my experience it tends to happen more often when you’re listening than when you’re reading, though this may be because my hearing’s not wonderful and I have to concentrate quite hard when I don’t have subtitles, but if you are lucky enough to have a good reader, it’s worth putting the missal away and just listening, as everyone stresses things differently.

This happened to me twice last week, and I was sufficiently intrigued to go away and look things up.  The first time was during the reading of the Passion at Palm Sunday, which was Matthew’s version this year (but I checked, and something similar, with only slightly different wording, is in Mark and Luke also; it’s not in any of the ‘shorter versions’ offered as alternatives).  We’re used to the idea that only the women are still there for Jesus at the Crucifixion.  Matthew says, almost off-handedly,’They had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him’, and he goes on to name three of them (27, v 55). As so often when we’re talking about women in the Bible, you have to think about what that covers, the travelling, the looking after, the laundry, the cooking and so on.  But that wasn’t the verse that stood out for me.

The women at the tomb

It’s later, after the Body has been begged for by Joseph of Arimathea, taken down, wrapped, and laid in the new tomb.  Then Joseph ‘rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed’ (60). Now this verse : ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb’ (61).

I don’t think I’d ever really heard this verse before.  All the Gospels are quite explicit about none of the disciples understanding any of what Jesus had told them about the Resurrection, and we have no grounds for thinking the women were any different.  But they just sit and wait.  For how long?  What are they thinking?  They are cold and wet, after the storm and the earthquake, they can’t have eaten since morning, if then.  I don’t think they are expecting or even hoping for anything to happen.

Loving longest when hope is gone

There is a wonderful and most moving conversation in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where Anne Elliot and Captain Harville are discussing the relative constancy of men and women (in Chapter 23).  He is sore because his friend who was to marry his sister (who has died) is now in love with someone else who Capt Harville naturally feels is inferior to his much-loved sister.  He rails, most unfairly in the circumstances, against the fickleness of women, and quotes ‘all stories, prose and verse’.  Anne agrees with him when he has the grace to admit that ‘these were all written by men’, and says they will never be able to prove it either way, and both sexes are indeed capable of great love.  But then she says :’All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’  And this is what I think is happening in the hearts of these two loving and faithful women.

The first witnesses

They must have gone back to the others after a while, because it was the Sabbath and I imagine they had to feed everybody.  Whatever family crisis occurs, people still need to eat, and it would have been the women cooking.  These same women come to the tomb on Sunday morning and receive the Good News. The story starts getting confusing here, with the different Gospels having different women doing different things in different sequences.  Some things are straightforward though : the women discover the Resurrection and even see the Lord before the men do; the men don’t believe them when they tell them, ‘these words seem to them an idle tale’, so it all takes longer than the Lord might have hoped, and he has to tell them himself, incidentally upbraiding them for their hardness of heart in not believing the women.

Attitudes take a very long time to change, and by the time the Gospels were written down, exactly how many women, and who they were, is still clearly not important enough to worry about;  but the Lord made the women the first witnesses to the Resurrection, even if the men have been trying to write them out of the story ever since.

Mary Magdalene and the gardener

The other verse that arrested me was not even in church.  I was washing up on Sunday morning after breakfast and singing along to the Easter Service on the radio, and they had the account of Mary Magdalene taking the Lord for the gardener, but because my hands were busy with something mindless, I was paying proper attention, and I realised why she doesn’t recognise him.  She’s crying, she bends to look into the tomb, the angels talk to her.  Obviously she goes in a little further to answer them, and then she turns round (still crying, because she has just explained that she doesn’t know where the body has gone), and sees ‘Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus’ (John 20, 14).  She’s inside the tomb, and he is against the light.  He repeats what the angels said, so she thinks he must be just some other person around for no obvious reason  —  and then he says her name, and she clearly leaps towards him.

I love this story, and I knew we weren’t getting it as part of our readings on Easter Sunday, so I checked to see when we might be having it.  It’s a good thing I was listening to the Anglican service on the radio.  That bit of John (20, vv 11-18), a female encounter with the Risen Lord,  is not part of the Catholic Sunday lectionary.