PART I – Mary: Prophecy and an Introduction to her Magnificat

(Part I of a potpourris of perspectives of our Blessed Mother Mary — prepared for discussion at a pre-concert lecture for Polyhumnia, St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, NYC) . . . more reflections to follow:

I:  Prophecy, the Kingdom and the Magnificat

In the Christian understanding, we are currently living in the “in-between” times – in the era following the physical life and death of Jesus.  With Jesus’ physical presence on earth over 2000 years ago, the coming of the Kingdom of God was initiated but will only come into complete fullness when Jesus returns.  Until that final day, Christians are commissioned to live into the teaching and example of Jesus in a wider world not yet fully claimed and transformed – this is Christian life in the “in-between” times – God’s reign begun – “already” at the same time “not yet.”  Within this context the Magnificat addesses a Christian struggle to live within a subversive, counter-cultural reign of God.

Following this line of understanding, what can we make of Mary’s Song?  Mary claims that the nonviolent, counter-cultural reign of God has already come among us –   and within us – in a revolution far more powerful than military violence can supply. The Magnificat contrasts the mightiness of God to the mightiness of human political power, and it demonstrates that freedom from oppression depends less upon political change than it does upon a change of heart – spiritual transformation.  Mary speaks with prophetic vision, with the heart of a prophet – in the Judaic tradition of prophecy.

Walter Brueggmann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, presents the hypothesis that:  “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”  He goes on to say that “The alternative consciousness to be nurtured, on the one hand, serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness.  To that extent, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things.  On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.   To that extent, it attempts to do what the conservative tendency has done, to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.”

Mary’s Magnificat celebrates in a prophetic voice, God’s mighty deeds of the past with an eye to what is continuing into the future. Mary prophesies that reversal is characteristic of divine intervention in human affairs, that God’s concern is for the lowly and despised. She celebrates God’s power to act on behalf of those marginalized and ostracized to the extent of casting the mighty down from their thrones

The Magnificat — also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary — is a canticle frequently sung or spoken in Christian church services. It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns.  Its name comes from the first word of the Latin version of the canticle’s text.  (See the Latin translation on handout.)

Within Christianity, the Magnificat is most frequently recited within the Liturgy of the Hours. In Western Christianity, the Magnificat is most often sung or recited during the main evening prayer service:  at Vespers in Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, and at Evening Prayer (or Evensong) in Anglicanism. In Eastern Christianity, the Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins. Among Protestant groups, the Magnificat may also be sung during worship services.

The text of the canticle is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-55) where it is spoken by the Virgin Mary during her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.  In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist, the child moves within Elizabeth’s womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings the words of the Magnificat in response.

Magnificat is the first of four nativity hymns in Luke’s Gospel. The other hymns are Zechariah’s Benedictus, the angels’ Gloria, and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis.   These songs have been identified as “the last of the Hebrew psalms, and the first of the Christian hymns.”  They serve to bridge the Hebrew and Christian faiths.

Mary’s Magnificat is a sophisticated piece of poetry. Who actually authored the Magnificat?  Is it reasonable to assume that Mary herself, a young Galilean woman would be a master of the techniques of psalmody that the poem reflects?  There are basically four positions regarding authorship:

1)  Some conservatives, orthodox, fundamentalists and evangelicals believe that Mary under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit extemporaneously spoke to words of the Magnificat during her visit to Elizabeth.

2)  Some believe that the Magnificat was written by the author of Luke-Acts who wrote the other canticles and apostolic speeches in the first part of Acts.  It’s been noted, however, that the Magnificat contains a Semitic flavor not found in the rest of the Lukan writing.

3)  Some believe that the Lukan writer borrowed the Magnificat and other canticles from a Jewish (non-Christian) tradition – which means that the author inserted a verse about Mary to suit the context in the infancy narrative.  This view can be questioned because it ignores the integrity, compactness and balance of the entire poem with this verse included.

4)  It may be likely that the Lukan writer quotes from an early Jewish-Christian source such as the Anawim sect in the early Jerusalem church.  Anawim means, literally “The Poor”, and drawing it’s meaning from the Magnificat, it includes the poor, in the spiritual as well as material sense.

The Magnificat, as it comes to us in the Gospel of Luke, was either an original composition in Greek or was translated into Greek from a Semitic original. The canticle borrows many words and expressions from the Hebrew scriptures, although the quotations come from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jews of Galilee and Judea in 1st century spoke both Greek and Aramaic, but if the Lukan author borrowed the words of the Magnificat from an early Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem the original language was most probably Hebrew. Semitisms in the poem and use of verb tenses and verb omissions are idiomatic Hebrew.  In any case the Magnificat is unquestionably Hebrew poetry in its essence, regardless of the language of the original composition.   And in the context of the infancy narrative in Luke, the Magnificat serves to bind the hope of Israel to the birth of Jesus.

St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, NYC

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One Response to PART I – Mary: Prophecy and an Introduction to her Magnificat

  1. Pauline P. Cason says:

    Jean – beautifully done! We miss you at St Mark’s.

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