The Magnificat: Revolutionary hymn
This talk was given by 19-year-old Charlotte Bray at the Maltfriscans’ annual meeting, the Chapter of Mats in 2014.
When I was asked to speak about this I was so overwhelmed and nervous! I didn’t want to do it. But when I thought about it – it’s very much in the spirit of the Magnificat; I’m not the most intellectual person, not a teacher or a speaker but God chose Mary and she was lowly and I’m lowly – so I thought I’d say yes!
So far this week we’ve heard lots of different ways of praising, praise via psalms, songs, Eucharist… I’m going to talk about praise via social justice, looking at the Magnificat in particular – a hymn that subverts society’s norms and values.
So what is the Magnificat? It is a song of prayer and praise which Mary proclaims in Luke’s Gospel, when she goes to visit Elizabeth after she has said yes to the Lord and has conceived Jesus. It is the ultimate prayer of praise.
[Read the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55]
We have many different images of Mary in art and in our heads, but who is the real Mary? Who is the Mary of the Magnificat? The Mary who sings this glorious song of praise and divine revolution?
We often think of Mary as timid handmaid of the Lord. That’s not the Mary I see in the Magnificat. Here I see Mary completely, enthralled and amazed by God, singing his praises and completely inspired by the Holy Spirit. Here she is certainly not timid. She is strong and proclaims some dangerously revolutionary ideas, such as the rich being sent away empty and the powerful being taken down from their thrones.
We can learn a lot about Mary from the Magnificat – that she was a good Jewish girl, as her song has parallels to the song of Hannah in the Old Testament and is full of quotations from the psalms. But we also mustn’t forget that at the time Mary was a young, Middle Eastern, pregnant girl out of wedlock whilst being engaged to Joseph. This is a time of great uncertainty as she faces social ostracism, public humiliation and even being stoned for being an adulteress. Not to mention the fact that she is carrying the Son of God in her womb – sounds like a stressful day to me!
But that’s a good lesson to all of us about praising God – no matter how bad or stressful things get, there’s always time and always a reason for praising God. Remember the drama [seen earlier] and the image of Mary in the Magnificat – a girl who is probably a bit weathered, stressed and scared but also strong, and still joyfully praising God with all of her being – completely filled by the Holy Spirit. That reminds me of a few people – she would look a bit like us…
Like Mary, we are all a bit stressed but still praising God with all our beings! If you look around, you can see the face of Mary in every woman.
My dad told me this story about Saint Bernadette which really spoke to me. When she was asked what Mary looked like, Bernadette said she was a young girl like me, she looked a bit like me.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Magnificat as the song of both the Mother of God and of the Church. It is not just Mary’s song of praise, this revolutionary promise is not just for her, it’s for all of us. It’s our song of praise.
Let’s look at the txt itself, in particular the opening line which is so powerful – an iconic prayer of praise “My soul magnifies the Lord”. Also in Greek and Latin…as I’m a theology student!
In Greek the verb is megalounei and there are many definitions: one is to make great, another is a metaphor meaning to make conspicuous, to deem or declare great, extol, celebrate, esteem highly… and a definition which Ant Towey used in his book – to mega-praise!
The one that struck me was ‘a metaphor meaning to make conspicuous.’ I hadn’t thought of that before. Not only is Mary glorifying and praising God, she’s also saying that our souls make God conspicuous to the world around us.
We are called to magnify God’s power and proclaim God’s word. Our souls magnify the Lord because God has made us in his image. The first step is to find God’s image in ourselves, so that like God we can look with favour on the lowly. To magnify the greatness of God we must live out of God’s image, knocked out of our self-centred world images of self reliance. It’s only when we recognise that we are made in God’s image, that it is God’s power working through us, we can truly live out and magnify the goodness of God.
We can’t change the world until we change ourselves, until we become bearers of God’s life and love. Pope Benedict said that Mary’s greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself. Like Fr May said yesterday – it’s God’s power, not ours. Luke only uses this verb ‘magnify’ a few times. One of them is Acts 10, which I love because it speaks to the Maltfriscans as a community: “…the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles also”, they were heard speaking in tongues and exalting God. We are Maltfriscans, we sing in tongues that’s part of what we do, and that’s on a par with Mary proclaiming and praising God. And when we do that, singing in tongues, we are making God conspicuous to the world around us. It is a sign of God.
The Magnificat shows us how to share God’s love. It is a hymn of liberation that turns the world upside down. I got this quote from a dusty old book on my mum’s shelf, but I highly recommend it (Ant’s book)! “The Magnificat is the great New Testament song of liberation; personal and social; moral and economic. A revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory.”
There are four words that really speak out to me about the Magnificat: I see that it is dangerous, it is subversive, it is revolutionary; and it is counter-cultural.
God doesn’t value what society values, doesn’t care what your job is, how much power you have, he doesn’t care – He send the rich away empty, the brings the powerful down from their thrones and scatters the proud hearted.
Our society tries to convince us that what we are is more important than who we are. It tells us that to be truly happy we have to get a good job, be successful, rich, beautiful, famous,.. God inverts this status quo.
In the Magnificat, Mary reclaims the covenant, God’s promise for the lowly, the marginalised, and the poor. The Magnificat shows us that we as Christians are called to be radically different, and go against society’s norms. We have to swim against the tide.
A bit of history… What links these three countries together: Guatemala, India and Argentina? In all these countries the governments have at some point in history banned public recitation of the Magnificat. In the 1980s Guatemalan police arrested people who recited the Magnificat in public, because it was an incitement to rebellion and a danger to the state. Similarly, after the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children all disappeared in the war placed te words of the Magnificat in the plaza, the military outlawed any public display of Mary’s song. You may e thinking these countries are so far away and the governments are so different from ours, but during the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in Church. So, every evening prayer, we Maltfriscans would have been breaking the law and could have been arrested.
Why do governments ban it? It’s from the Bible – it’s Mary’s song of praise. They recognised that it’s not only dangerous and subversive, but its words are very powerful and fully realisable – within our powers as people made in the image and likeness of God.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, recognised the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song. Before being executed by the Nazis he spoke these words in Advent in 1933: “The song of Mary is Advent’s oldest hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.”
This is not tender, gentle, dreamy Mary… this song has none of the sweet nostalgic playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is a hard, strong inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. It is God working through us because we are made in his image. It is all down to him but we are his hands and feet.
Liberation theology is a strand of theology that teaches that we are called to bring the kingdom of God in the here and now. Called to bring about a fair and just world with a preferential option for the poor and marginalised. The Magnificat is its theme song. We, as Body of Christ, have the duty and ability to bring about the kingdom of God. That is how we praise God – not only by singing his praises and singing in tongues but by actively helping our neighbour, filling the hungry and raising the lowly.
The Church has had concerns over liberation theology in the past but at its best it simply is the Gospel in action. Pope Francis seems to be breathing new life into the Church, in particular regarding social justice. I love this quote: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.” Remember the words we had a couple of years ago –Avanti, go out!
It is not what we have that counts, it’s what we do with what we have. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, we all have something to give. So, what will you give?
We can’t all go out to Africa or South America and fight for justice or help people in poverty out there, but there are many things we can do. There are many people in our own society who are the lowly. Perhaps in your work or classroom or down the street –someone who is lonely, someone who is spiritually poor or actually poor, and it is our job to help them.
Some questions to consider:
- Have you ever considered Mary’s song to be subversive?
- Were you surprised that countries have actually banned the Magnificat?
- As Maltfriscans, how can we learn to live the Magnificat in our daily lives?
- What Spirit-led subversive actions will you undertake this year? Eg I’m giving a talk right now as a first year student who doesn’t know very much to a community that has a doctor of theology, Fr May, priests, teachers…!
The Magnificat is a mixture of praise and action. So we are going to say a prayer to finish, then sing, praise and intercede for all those who are lonely or marginalised – and that’s our subversive action for today.
Lady of liberation,
foster in us a Spirit of revolution,
as a mirror of God’s justice
so that our souls too may glorify the Lord. Amen