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The Magnificat

By December 16, 2007 No Comments
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The Magnificat is important to me. I pray it several times a week. I pray the daily office only once a day, so I alternate the canticles for morning and evening: the Benedictus and the Magnificat. I love both, and I always look forward to saying them. You can feel the old man in the Benedictus and the young woman in the Magnificat. The first is about resolution and the second is about upheaval. It’s wonderful that the tradition is counter-intuitive, with the song of the old assigned for when the day is young, and the song of the young for when the day is old. Is it because the morning feels more masculine, like the sun, and the evening more feminine, like the moon?

You can feel the edge in Mary’s song, and you can sense that attitude in her which shows up later in the gospels. I am content that Mary herself composed the original. Why not? For scholars to assume she didn’t is simply prejudice. Why shouldn’t she have been as smart and skillful as she was fertile and obedient?

I use my own translation of the Magnificat. The ecumenical translation of the Benedictus is okay (but “and you, my child” is better in Spanish: “y tu niño”). The ecumenical translations were done by the International Consultation on English Texts and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, and then by Christian Churches Together, at which I used to represent the Reformed Church in America. The tongue-twisting titles hint of some of the problems involved. In the 1980s we were reviewing the canticles for inclusive language. When we got to the Magnificat, I remember Gail Ramshaw, one of the Lutherans, saying something like, “Please, this is one of the few biblical texts in a woman’s voice, can’t we let it be?”

As a canticle, the Magnificat is a song of the church, and it needs to speak for every soul. But it was first sung by a woman about an experience that only a woman can have. How feminine should it feel, even when it’s a canticle? And what sort of femininity? Composers have set it to music. Bach’s Magnificat is the best known, but it sounds no more or less feminine than anything else he wrote. For congregational singing there are options available, but none that I know of feels particularly feminine. The most common metrical setting, “Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord,” is about as disembodied as a hymn can be. I mean, she’s pregnant, for God’s sake!

What should it sound like if it were embodied and feminine? Like “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story? Like “I Am Woman”? How about the operatic warrior-maiden Norma in the voice of Dame Joan Sutherland? Gillian Welch? Lucinda Williams? Grace Slick? I vote for Carole King–let her write the music and let her sing it. She’s Jewish, she’s smart and she’s funny, she’s got great hair, and she’s from Brooklyn. “I feel the earth move… .”

How sexual shall we let it be? How sexual was it? Can one hear it as a song of a scullery maid whom the king noticed and chose to bear his son? Just because she was a virgin doesn’t mean she was asexual. We can let her be proud of herself. At the same time this was no Cinderella story because she knew how deadly serious her situation was, and it cost her very much. I’ll wager there were nights she wished she hadn’t said, “Let it be to me.” But what was inside her was saving her and strengthening her, making her great, and she made God greater too.

My favorite choral setting is C. V. Stanford’s opus 10 in B flat major. To me it sounds feminine, powerful, and joyful. Its dactylic and trochaic rhythms are in my head when I say the Song of Mary, and its rhythms have informed my own translation.

The ecumenical translation is wordy and diffuse. The Greek original is concise and energetic, and it does have an edge. And it’s sexual. She’s a female servant, not any servant, and she uses the word “seed;” for a canticle we do not have to go all the way with “sperm”! But if you don’t say “seed” you lose Genesis 3. I have tried to reflect her original concision and something of her word order. I have gone back to the older version’s “magnify” because it is stronger than “makes great,” and it connects us to the tradition. In her fifth line I use “magnify” again for “has done me great things.” In the sixth line the emphasis of her word order is impossible to convey in English. I offer my translation here, such as it is. Let someone try a better one, but only if you’ve been praying it for a few years.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has regarded his handmaiden’s lowliness.
And look, from now on all generations will bless me,
for the Mighty One has magnified me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is on the generations who fear him.
He’s shown the strength of his arm,
and scattered the proud in their designs.
He’s put down the mighty from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He’s filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He came to help his servant Israel
remembering his mercy,
as he said to our fathers,
to Abraham and his seed forever.

My friend, a Turkish Mufti, said in a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria that he thinks Muslims love the Virgin Mary more than Christians do, especially Protestants. That’s a shame. I pray the daily office alone, but three mornings a week I am in her company as I repeat her song. She had a unique experience of God, and my soul gets to have a share in it.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is the pastor emeritus of the “Old First'' Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn NY. He and Melody have retired to New Paltz NY, where he does pulpit supply, some teaching, childcare of grandchildren, and feeding birds.