22 December – Singing for joy

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour 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.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
(Luke 1.46-56)

I adore musicals, in fact I wouldn’t mind living in one! For me it is one of the joys of Christmas television, the chance to see ‘White Christmas’ again, or the ‘Sound of Music’ or any of those great Rogers and Hammerstein movies. There are two archetypal scenes for me which typify what a musical is all about (although the opening scene of the first Austin Powers movie comes a very close third) and they are Fred Astaire singing in the rain and, of course, Julie Andrews in the opening sequence of the ‘Sound of Music’ running through that alpine meadow.

Austin Powers dances for joy!

Austin Powers dances for joy!

Both scenes express for me sheer joy and that desire that exists within us to express that joy by dancing and singing. It’s like David dancing before the Ark as it enters into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). It is like the man cured by the apostles at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, ‘walking and leaping and praising God.’ (Acts 3.8). They couldn’t restrain their joy, they had to express it, they felt as if they would burst if they didn’t.

The Gospel today is the very familiar text of the Magnificat. In response to the joy that Mary feels as she meets Elizabeth, in response to the joy that the unborn children express in their mothers’ wombs, Mary sings this song. In fact this is the first of three ‘songs’ that St Luke includes in the birth narrative. Mary, Zechariah and Simeon are all given songs to sing.

The truth is of course that Luke doesn’t say that they burst into song, it is the church that has taken these texts and used them as ‘canticles’ which literally means ‘little song’ and along with psalmody has built the offices, the times of prayer, that form the golden thread that runs through each day. It is the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, that is at the heart of Evening Prayer, Evensong, Vespers, whatever name we choose.


An illuminated Magnificat

An illuminated Magnificat

Joy Cowley has written a modern free-translation of Mary’s song which captures something of its mood

My soul sings in gratitude.
I’m dancing in the mystery of God.
The light of the Holy One is within me
and I am blessed, so truly blessed.

St Ambrose, one of the great Doctors of the Church, in his commentary on the Magnificat writes

“In the heart of each one may Mary praise the Lord, in each may the spirit of Mary rejoice in the Lord.”

While we journey to Bethlehem, while we are Bethlehem bound, it is good to sing, it helps the journey. But be careful what you sing.

Mary’s words are familiar to us but they are deeply radical. This is no sweet song but the voice of revolution, a song of new justice, a song in which the overturning of society is described. This is subversive stuff but as Mary sang it she sang as the prophet of a new order which her son would herald, for he would be king of a new kind of kingdom and of that kingdom we are citizens. The truth is that the musical into which we are drawn is like no other and the kingdom that we await as we journey to Bethlehem is like no other and this young girl who sings with the voice of the kingdom is a matchless maiden like no other. So we dare to pray with St Ambrose

In my heart may Mary praise the Lord.
In my life may the spirit of Mary rejoice.

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