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A Magnificat We Might Not Want to Hear

A Magnificat We Might Not Want to Hear December 10, 2020

Join me on a musical exploration of Mary’s great song of praise. It might just change your view of this extraordinary poem.

The “Magnificat” is the name given to the poem we find in Luke 1:46-55.(“Magnificat” is simply the Latin translation of the beginning of the first line.) It is Mary’s response, spoken when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, to the news she has received from Gabriel: that she would bear the Son of God.

The Magnificat is a traditional reading for the third Sunday of Advent, which is December 12 of this year. (For an article about a famous musical setting of  another Advent text, click here.) And as one of the greatest of all biblical passages, it has much to teach us.

Let’s see what we can learn about it by listening to a powerful musical setting of it by the English composer Sir Michael Tippett.

Though the piece is written for choir and organ, it may be unlike anything you have ever heard before. It’s full of surprising dissonances and shocking interruptions, as well as moments of almost spooky calm.  It’s a study in opposites – and that’s one of the reasons why this piece of music brings Mary’s song to life  so powerfully.

Here’s the complete text, presented in the English version that Tippett sets to music:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen [helped] his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever.

Mary begins the Magnificat by offering praise because God has “magnified” her: God has transformed a lowly handmaiden into the vessel of Messiah. As we see in David, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, Rahab – and in the Israelites themselves – God often chooses the underdog to do great things. Thus, on hearing the angel’s good news, Mary immediately recognizes herself in the story of her faith.

THE MUSIC WE WANT TO HEAR

For two thousand years, Christians have looked at the Magnificat as a testament to Mary’s faithfulness. Among Catholics, it has encouraged devotion and love for the Blessed Mother.  Christians of all kinds often focus on its message of triumph. The Messiah is on his way!

Especially this time of year, as prepare to welcome the cute little cherub and the angels in the realms of glory, we are drawn to musical settings of the Magnificat that emphasize God’s glorious achievement in the Incarnation: songs and anthems that are inspiring or triumphant. Examples include Palestrina’s beautiful vocal setting, Bach’s triumphant choral masterwork, and even U2’s high-octane “Magnificent.” Another famous version is the contemporary Christian hit “Mary Did You Know?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. Because Gabriel.)

We like these settings because they allow us to imagine ourselves as the beneficiaries of Mary’s faith and God’s faithfulness.  It’s a great place to be.

But it’s not the whole story.

MARY’S SONG OF JUSTICE

The Magnificat is not a completely joyous song. In fact, parts of it are quite dark:

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away

Mary praises God not just because of what God has done for her, personally. She praises God because of who God is: a God of justice.

As a young woman living in a land occupied by a colonial power, Mary knows a thing or two about injustice. Yet, she knows that God is ready, willing, and able to radically transform society.  God has replaced the oppressors with the oppressed, fed the hungry with the food of the rich, and redistributed wealth from the rich to the poor.  And God is about to do it again, starting with her.

Of course, this is not going to go over very well. Jesus’s prophetic calls for justice will precipitate conflict and anger. It will set brother against brother. It will culminate in his execution, of course, but it will also continue to motivate his followers to root our injustice, love the poor, and spread is live-giving message of forgiveness and salvation – no matter what happens.

A MESSAGE WE MAY NOT WANT TO HEAR

Here’s the bad news. As wealthy Westerners, we are closer to the imperial Romans than to the Judeans. Our bellies are full and we sleep without fear, confident that we will fit through the eye of that needle.

This realization ought to make Mary’s song a difficult one for us to hear.

That’s why we need music that reminds us of how difficult and radical Mary’s song actually is: and how holy God is.  We need a song that resists domestication, one that highlight the Magnificat’s prophetic message.

We need Michael Tippett’s “Magnificat” from 1961:

Tippett’s piece is dissonant and discordant. It begins with an acerbic fanfare that grabs us by the collar and shakes us awake. This is more like the trumpet of Revelation than that the one played by the angels on Christmas Eve. Something is going to happen – and it may not be good.

This fanfare continues through this piece, its dissonance keeping us from ever feeling comfortable. No matter what Mary says about God’s deliverance, no matter how ready we are to exult in God’s victory, that trumpet call keeps us wary. It reminds us that God does not work in the ways we expect.

It also reminds us that, perhaps, God’s transformation of the world will not be easy for us. And that can be a good thing, a refining fire that reminds us to examine ourselves to see if we are truly serving Mary’s God.

THE WAY THINGS ARE – AND THE WAY THEY ARE MEANT TO BE

Throughout this piece the choir moves back and forth between moments of dramatic intensity and mysterious calm.  These contrasts illuminate the difference between the way things are and the way they are meant to be. Listen to the way Tippett sets the ending of the poem (from 2:18-3:00 in the recording; click here to listen to that exact passage.)

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever.

The dissonance of the organ at the end highlights the difficulty of its message. Though it is  discordant, I like to think of this music not as portraying God’s anger, but instead the anxiety that we ought to feel when we hear these challenging verses.

This becomes even more apparent if you listen to the very end of the piece, when Tippett uses the words of the doxology (“Glory be to the Father…”) as a springboard for the final, triumphant conclusion. But while the music grows in splendor, it never resolves all of the tension it has built.  Even the final “Amen” is a dissonant chord. The music stops, but it does not sound like it has “finished.”

THE REST OF THE STORY

Tippett’s Magnificat is the first of a pair of pieces. It is meant to be followed immediately by a setting of the “Nunc dimittis”: the song Simeon sang after encountering Jesus in the temple:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Though consistently more intimate and quieter than the Magnificat, this second piece is actually more dissonant. It is shadowy and eerie. Notes mysteriously slide between and behind each other.  The mist clears near the end when the doxology returns, but that moment of praise stops almost immediately. The final Amen leaves us in a strange and unfamiliar place, uneasy, unfulfilled.

This is the mindset of Simeon: an old man who has waited faithfully his entire life to see the Messiah. But upon seeing him, he is left with more question than answers. As Simeon lays eyes on the Son of God, he sees yet another weak and vulnerable creature whom God will use to transform the world – and this time not just God’s chosen people, but the Gentiles as well. Tippett’s piece dramatizes the moment when Simeon comes to terms with the inconceivable implications of the Incarnation.

FAITHFULNESS?

At the same time, I wonder if this music is meant to perhaps portray something even darker: Simeon’s second thoughts. Were I in Simeon’s situation, with Roman soldiers patrolling outside the door of the synagogue, I might ask myself whether I really believed that this tiny baby would do what God said he would.

But, of course, Jesus did not. He did not expel the Romans, and he did not actually bring justice to first-century Judea. He died shamefully between two criminals.

And yet, his living presence continues to empower other frail, sinful creatures to carry out his mission, to spread is message of justice, and to care for the weak, the poor, and the hungry.

At the end of Tippett’s two pieces we are back where we started. God’s ways are just as revolutionary – and no less mysterious. Hearing the testimonies of two paragons of faith has reminded us of just how little we understand God, how far we are from a true life of faith, and how little we heed God’s call for justice.

Tippett’s music reminds us that we are, in a word, lowly.

Thank God.

Image by Jacques GAIMARD,  Eric Blochet, andLukas Baumert from Pixabay 
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