Magnificat


The Magnificat is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, and one might even say, the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. . . . . 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 collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of mankind. There are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night

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Last week, the Washington Post ran a feature story on the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings in Luke 1: 46-55. It’s about time, really, the song is more than 2,000 years old and has been an important part of Christian liturgy for nearly all of those years.

Here is the full text of the Magnificat, taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Book of Luke:

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 forever. (Luke 1: 46-55, NSRV)

The list of composers who have set this text to music is more or less the same as the list of every composer that most of us have ever heard of, and then some. These settings include some of the most beautiful sacred music ever produced. But there is a downside: the beauty of the music, and its liturgical prominence across denominations, can blind us to the truly radical–and even subversive–message that Mary delivers.

The Mary who delivers the Magnificat is not the Queen of Heaven sitting on her throne. She is a poor, pregnant, unmarried teenager living in the shadow of a great empire and singing a song about bringing down the powerful from their thrones and sending the rich away empty. This is not a vague message of peace and goodwill to all; it is a political statement about, in the words of one Peruvian priest, “the preferential love of God for the lowly and the abused.”

The Magnificat is a beautiful and self-contained poem that is also a revolutionary prophecy. It begins with Mary marvelling at the goodness of God, who has elevated an unimportant, common person like her to an almost unimaginable greatness. From there, Mary generalizes: raising poor and insignificant people to great heights is what God does. It is the essence of His sovereignty. And the flipside of this is also important: He reduces wealthy and powerful people to insignificance. His Kingdom dramatically reverses the organizing logic of human societies.

This idea makes rich white men like me feel really uncomfortable. But there is not much I can do about that. It is the plain meaning of the words themselves; we can only dismiss it by doing grave violence to the text. Furthermore, as the Magnificat is the longest block of text spoken by a woman anywhere in the New Testament, we cannot dismiss its core ideas without distorting the Bible’s portrayal of women. By placing these words in the mouth of Mary, Luke intentionally includes women in the category of people who have been oppressed by society but will be elevated by the Lord.

So, as Latter-day Saints gear up to study the New Testament in 2019, what do we do with The Magnificat? Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I suspect, have never heard the title Magnificat or considered these verses as a separate canticle set apart from the rest of Luke 1. Our traditions do not include–and often intentionally shy away from–the traditional Christian liturgy And our hymbooks don’t have a lot of classical settings.

But the text is crucial on its own terms. Mary’s words are, chronologically, the first things that we hear about Jesus in the New Testament. They are the first prophecies of his divine destiny and the first explanations of his reasons for coming to earth. And they intentionally echo the words of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Amos, for whom lifting up the lowly and sending rich people away hungry was also a thing.

The text of the Magnificat was designed to radically alter a chosen people’s understanding of religion–to tell them that the world would never be the same again because the Savior about to be born would organize his Kingdom on principles exactly the opposite of those practiced by any human society. The poor and the powerless will have the bests seats. The wealthy and privileged won’t even be in the house.

This is a jarring message, and those of us professing to be Christians must allow ourselves to be jarred by it. And if we are rich and privileged people claiming to be Christians (and, by the standards of biblical Palestine, we are all rich and privileged), we need to come to grips with the fact that our privilege is an offense to God. And our attempts to frame that privilege as a sign of God’s favor are doomed to fail.

This is a recurring theme of the New Testament, which announces a new social order called the Kingdom of God where wealth and privilege are disqualifying liabilities. The first shall be last. The rich man trying to enter the Kingdom is like a camel going through the eye of a needle. Those who truly want to serve God must sell all they have and give it to the poor.

These passages actually mean what they say. They tell us something about the logic of heaven. They tell us that we are going to have to look for God among poor people, refugees, immigrants, weak people, and those despised by society. Because that is where God is always going to be.

It is easy to pay lip service to these ideas without actually thinking that we have to do anything differently in order to believe them. And it is easy to dismiss those who talk about toppling thrones and bringing down the rich as cranks and hippies–socialists engaging in class warfare in order to try to punish good, decent, hard-working Americans for their hard work. Intellectually we know that we cannot serve God and Mammon, but we still want to give it a try.

But this is not how the Kingdom of God works. The texts could not be clearer about this, beginning with the prophetic plea of a poor, unmarried, pregnant woman who would soon be a refugee in another country. A woman who prophesied that her son would topple empires and usher in a new kind of world–one that, after more than 2,000 years, His followers have still not managed to create.

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    Thanks, Michael.

    This reminds me of the words of another prophet, Wendell Berry.

    “I thought, He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

  2. Dave Combe says:

    You made me cry.

  3. Michael, It sounds like you are advocating for a Mormon liberation theology. At least, I hope that is the case. If you are, I strongly support your effort.

  4. Thank you for this, Michael. What a wonderful way to end the Advent and Christmas season by focusing on the incomparable mission and life of Jesus – as prophecies by his mother.

    My favourite version of the Magnificat is by Arvo Pärt, an Estonian Composer. https://youtu.be/yU5jpM3uNgg

  5. Michael Austin says:

    DeAnn,

    That was a beautiful setting. Thank you.

  6. This is Christianity that is too often banned, or fought over, or edited out. Good work!

  7. I heard the word Magnificat in passing but did not know the meaning. Thank you.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Magnificat is the Latin verb translated “magnifies” at the beginning of the text. It is third person singular of magnificare, from magnus “great” and facere “to make”; i.e. “to make great.”

  9. Excellent post. The message of the Magnificat, especially said/sung by Mary, is incredibly subversive to the way we do things. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Thank you, Michael.

    Three reasons why I love the Magnificat:

    The Magnificat is a key to the Gospel of Luke. It is how Luke’s Gospel begins; it is the climax of the first story that Luke tells. The Magnificat says that we are about to learn of the God who came among us to succor the humble and to resist the powerful and the rich.

    The story of Mary’s meeting with Elisabeth is dramatic and mysterious. Elisabeth was too old to conceive, and when she did conceive, she was mystified. She was sure that her pregnancy was “the Lord’s doing,” but she lived in seclusion for five months, apparently uncertain what her pregnancy really meant. Mary was pregnant and unmarried. The two women desperately needed each other. When they met, they were blessed with a glorious revelation of God’s choice to manifest His love through the lowly, the scorned, and the neglected.

    In the Magnificat, Mary speaks for each of us. When I read the Magnificat, or when I hear it sung, I join my voice with hers: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” It is one of the greatest of all prayers.

  11. Shiny Swarovski says:

    I personally cannot see Jesus abiding in a Latter-day Saint temple for even a minute when He returns; those He values most will not be there and there will be no time to waste. (I think our opulent temples are an affront to God, tbh.)

  12. Shiny. I have to say that I have felt the comfort of Christ in our temples. I think there is a beauty in a beautiful place of worship built with the intent to glorify God’s love for all people and open to all people where the distinctions of class are opaque and all are seen as equal to God. It would be bad to make them Rameumptons where people are turned away because they don’t have money. But I do think your idea that those resources could be used to lift the burdens of the poor is also beautiful and we are perhaps suffering from a lack of proportion, I honestly don’t know. I do know Mary brought Jesus to a temple at 8 days old, and twelve years old, and Christ cleansed the lack of proportion later, we do need to be careful.

  13. The problem with toppling empires is that they are replaced by new empires. We have our part in comforting the afflicted and, perhaps, in afflicting the comfortable but the full realization of the new world necessarily waits on Christ’s return.

  14. Beautiful post. Thank you.

  15. Side, your last sentence sounds like an excuse to do nothing.

  16. I have always loved the Magnificat. Thank you Michael for this wonderful and intimately challenging love letter to it. I have always felt that Mary is truly a great prophet and poet in these words.

  17. Really great, Mike. The Magnificat is the true spirit of Christmas.

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