This month has a major Marian feast, celebrated on August 15. As has always been the practice in liturgical texts, the day’s importance is signalled in Common Worship by its being listed in red (the origin of the term ‘red-letter day’). It’s designated simply as ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’, but in the Roman Catholic tradition it’s known as the Assumption of the Virgin – a feast celebrated in the eastern tradition also, where it’s known as the Dormition. I’ve written about the feast-day on a previous occasion. So this year I’m going to write on another Marian topic: the Magnificat or the song of Mary. It occurs only in Luke’s gospel, chapter 1 verses 46-55, and is Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth’s recognition of her as ‘the mother of my Lord’. The original text is, of course, in the Greek of Luke’s gospel, but the canticle is known in the Western Church by the first word of its Latin translation: Magnificat anima mea Dominum , ‘My (mea) soul (anima) magnifies /doth magnify (magnificat) the Lord (Dominum).
The Magnificat has been part of Christian liturgy since earliest times, associated in the Western Church particularly with the main service of evening prayer: Vespers, or Evensong. In the Eastern tradition it is sung at Matins. Western liturgy usually adds the doxology at the end (Glory be to the Father …etc), although this is not in the gospel text.
The style and structure of the Magnificat echoes the poetry and song of the Old Testament, and falls into four main parts: Mary’s rejoicing that she has been privileged to give birth to the Messiah (verses 46-48); her glorification of God’s power, holiness and mercy (verses 49-50); her anticipation that, through the Messiah, God will transform the world (verses 51-53); and her exaltation of God for his faithfulness in fulfilling his promise to Abraham (verses 54-55), which alludes to Genesis 12 verses 1-3. Mary’s song echoes the song of Hannah (I Samuel 2 verses 1-10), and expresses ideas that are also reminiscent of the words of the prophets.
Through sheer familiarity, reciting the Magnificat in the comfort of our churches and cathedrals, as we perhaps also enjoy one of its many beautiful musical settings, the extremely radical nature of Mary’s prophetic song may escape us. But it is revolutionary: the proud will be brought low; the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed; and the rich will go without. Did you know that, because of this subversive message, the British Raj forbade the Magnificat to be sung in churches in India? But it was not only imperial Britain that took this step. It was similarly banned by the Guatemalan government in the 1980s, and in Argentina the military junta outlawed any public display of Mary’s words after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, protesting against the ‘disappearance’ of their children, displayed posters bearing words from this canticle. One cannot sum it up better than by quoting from a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1933:
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings…. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.