The Original Magnificat
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
A couple of weeks ago Father James Martin, SJ posted this on Twitter:
It’s been bugging me ever since.
I don’t have a problem with the idea of writing my own song of praise to God; I think that’s actually a really good exercise for all practicing Christians. But a song of praise in the style of the Magnificat is something entirely different.
Let’s look at some of the more popular praise songs in the current hymnal for the ELCA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Most of them fall in one of three categories: call to praise, expectation based on who God is as revealed in the bible, and personal response.
Call to Praise
These hymns encourage (or command) people to praise the Lord, usually by repeating the same phrase over and over again. #819 Come, All You People exhorts us, “Come, all you people, come and praise…” throughout its three verses. #853 When Morning Gilds the Sky repeats “Jesus Christ be praised” twice in each of its five verses. #872 Praise Ye the Lord has four verses giving a variety of ways in which we should “Praise God.”
Expectation Based on Who God Is and What He Has Done
This was the most common type of praise song in the hymnal. They include such favorites as This Is My Father’s World (#824), The God of Abraham Praise (#831), Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise (#834), Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee (#836), Beautiful Savior (#838), Crown Him With Many Crowns (#855), and How Great Thou Art (#856). Each of these hymns tells about the wonderful things God has already done in the world (the beauty of creation is a popular theme, as is God’s faithfulness to Israel and the atoning sacrifice of God’s only Son), and how we can continue to expect God’s merciful and redeeming activity.
Finally we have those songs which describe one’s personal response to God’s grace and salvation. These include Shout to the Lord (#821), Lord, I Lift Your Name on High (#857), and I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me (#860). While I appreciate the sentiment behind each of these songs and I recognize that they are, in a way, witnessing to what God has accomplished in an individual’s life, I truly detest singing these songs in a worship setting. There’s more of an emphasis on our response than on what God has done, and it feels like we’re singing praises to our own piety and worship.
But I digress, because none of this has anything to do with why I struggle with the Magnificat.
There’s no call to praise in the Magnificat. It begins with Mary’s personal response to God (verses 46-49), and then quickly moves into what God has done to cause that response (verses 50-55). And that’s where I struggle.
Mary was a young Jewish girl in ancient Palestine, engaged to be married, who was told by the angel Gabriel that she would be overshadowed by the power of the Most High. As a result she would become pregnant and bear a child who would be the Son of God. Shortly afterwards, the newly pregnant Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant with a child heralded by Gabriel. And when the two women greeted each other Mary burst out in the song we call the Magnificat, in which she praises the God of Israel for fulfilling the promise he’d made so long ago.
But at this point in the narrative, God hadn’t done any of those things yet. The infant Jesus was barely formed in Mary’s womb; he was months away from even being born. The proud had not yet been scattered; the powerful were still on their thrones and the lowly were still low. The hungry were still hungry, and the rich were still rich. His servant Israel was living under Roman rule. How could Mary sing praise for things God hadn’t yet accomplished as though they were her current reality?
The answer is hope. Mary had hope. And hope is what I struggle with. I look at the world as it is, and my hope withers and begins to die.
That’s why I’m not blogging much, despite my best intentions. I can’t comment on what’s going on in the world right now, because it’s too painful. I follow the news much less closely than I used to, and rather than informing me, I find it’s building my prayer list. All I’m learning from the news is who else needs prayers.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Prayers are good. It helps to bring us closer to people we don’t know, who are suffering in ways we haven’t experienced. But to proclaim Christ’s victory as already accomplished? In a metaphysical sense, I’m fine with that. But in an experiential sense, I just can’t go there.
And that’s exactly where Mary went. She had hope that the child God had put in her womb would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, and send the rich away empty, and so she lived with the expectation that those things were already accomplished. And it was also with that expectation that she raised her son. His work is not yet finished, but he certainly began it, and it has continued throughout two millennia.
We’re still not there. The proud still stick together and look out for their own interests with the help of their powerful friends. The lowly are still low, the hungry are still hungry, and the rich are becoming richer. But to give up on hope, to not hold onto the expectation that those things will change, is to accept that that reality is here to stay. And once we accept it, then we approve it.
I cannot give the status quo my approval. I have to believe that there is a better way. And I believe that that better way is through Christ. So here is my Magnificat, created out of hope and desperation:
My soul clings to the Lord,
and my spirit depends on God my Savior,
for he sees the struggles of his people
and strengthens their resolve for justice.
For the Mighty One has supplied his creation with abundant resources,
graciously ensuring that no one need experience want,
and his mercy inspires many to share what they have.
He has endured throughout the years, undefeated by tyrants as the lowly continue to
God’s love and compassion have brought down the regimes of those who cultivate
hate and fear
and he has enabled us to see the other as ourselves.
His Spirit works in those who love peace to speak truth to power,
and sacrifice comfort and convenience for justice and equity,
continuing to insist upon the reality that all people are created in God’s own image
and his mercy, compassion, dignity, and love will ultimately rule the world.