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Magnificat: Daring to Hope

by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p.

Evensong Sermon, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 23rd October 2022

'The Visitation' by Mariotto Albertinelli (1474–1515)

All generations, we have just heard, shall call me blessed. Not least, perhaps, all generations of choral composers, who have found enduring inspiration – and employment -  in these words of Mary of Nazareth as she magnifies her Lord. The version we have heard tonight bears particular

witness to, precisely, the longevity of the text’s appeal, with ancient, anonymous chant alternating with the accents of a living composer. And, throughout the centuries, different aspects of the old old story have been brought newly into focus when the Magnificat is sung. There is the joy with which Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist in her old age;  there is the breathless wonder of a young woman who feels God taking flesh within her, as the Creator bursts through all normal categories of what could be thought or envisaged  in order to come unimaginably close to his creation: God is with us, in the virgin who conceives.

Accordingly, those who attend Evensong regularly in this place doubtless hear Magnificats in moods ranging from exuberant, festive, even defiant razzmatazz to stammering amazement at divine intimacy. There are settings that begin with a single voice echoed and amplified by a choral response, just as Mary’s meditation on the great things that he who is mighty has done for her broadens into her reflection on the Lord’s mercy on all those who fear him. There are others where a soloist emerges from a densely textured background of interwoven melody, as Mary stands  out as a representative of a people, longing, searching and finally exulting, rejoicing in the companionship and the commitment of the One who puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble and meek. The sheer, dazzling variety of Magnificats, then, is rooted in a deeper unity: this is common prayer at its most common, with Mary in her unique vocation voicing the deepest desires of all humanity – and daring to hope, for their fulfilment. And perhaps all those desires of which the Magnificat speaks, the desire to be fed, to be helped, to be embraced by mercy, can be summed up in the invitation that has been issued to us tonight: the invitation to consider what we are doing in coming to Evensong, and, in particular, what we are doing in praying the Magnificat, as a sharing in the justice of God.

There are certainly people in this congregation far better placed than I am to offer a nuanced and specialized definition of justice, but perhaps as a starting point we might do worse than think of it as both the state of affairs where things are as they should be, and the process – in our damaged world inevitably a process of restoration -  by which this is brought about.   A moment’s reflection, however, suffices to show that, while there might be broad consensus here, on the desirability of being fed, helped and embraced by mercy, more precise questions of what this looks like, what constitutes things being as they should be, and of what means might be legitimate for achieving such an end, are far more abidingly controversial.  And there are more subtle issues to consider too. Desire for justice, just because its absence does violate those deepest parts of ourselves that long to be fed, to be helped, to have mercy shown us, can shade into vindictive bitterness, an impulse to lash out and hurt as we have been hurt. Justice – and this is a reading that has textured and, not infrequently, disfigured theological reflection within the Christian tradition specifically, can be conceived – quite wrongly, according to the tenets of that same tradition -  as opposed to mercy, and seen, therefore, not as something for which we should long, for ourselves or for others, but which we should seek to evade or flee.

How can the Magnificat, and Mary’s singing of it, help us here? How can it help us to explore what it means to work for and participate in not just any old justice but, specifically, in the justice of God, a justice which, surely, could neither damage us nor legitimate our damaging each other?   And here I think the two readings we have heard tonight are a valuable resource.

The original context, of our first reading is contested by the scholars, but its themes will surely have formed part of the background music to Mary’s own religious and human formation. In the scroll of the prophet Isaiah she has heard tell of the oppressor’s pride humbled, high fortifications cast down; of divinely provided food that does not merely satisfy but that delights. And, now, miraculously, in her becoming the Mother of the Messiah, who was to liberate and nourish his people, all this has come to pass.   As we hear her Magnificat, then, it’s maybe not too fanciful to say, we are eavesdropping on Mary’s delighted realisation that the sacred text has come  alive for her, is meant for her, and so she echoes it, singing of the hungry fed with good things, and the mighty cast from their thrones; rejoicing in the one for whom she has waited, glad in the salvation of God.  Our second text meanwhile, from the same gospel which records the Magnificat, shows Mary’s Son, grown to manhood playing with just these same theme as he speaks to his disciples of the justice that should characterise their lives together .  The Messiah himself, it seems, can find no better images to describe his reign, in which things shall be as they should be, than those his mother used:  images of feasting, and images of reversal of fortune in the context of feasting.

What does all this have to tell us about God’s justice?

In the first place, I think, it warns us against a certain kind of minimalism.  It is a banquet of succulent richness that the Lord prepares for all peoples, according to the book of Isaiah : fat things and wine on the lees, not curling sandwiches and tepid Chardonnay. The hungry, in the words of the Magnificat, will be fed not with yellow-stickered end of the day left-overs, but with good things, desirable things, things that make us salivate.  If we are called – as I believe we are – to mirror the divine justice in our attempts to do the little we can to make things to be as they should be, that does perhaps constitute a quite concrete challenge to us.  This is not only –perhaps for many of us not mainly – a matter of ensuring that the items in our regular shop destined for the food bank are Taste the Difference products rather than items from the Basics range; we may not all be in a position to do so. We may be more able to give richly in other ways to do the little we can to make things be the way they should be: to feed with our attentiveness and courtesy those on our streets whose sense of dignity is starved, for instance, or to give time in prayer and advocacy for those on the margins: these too are small but significant ways in which we can feed the hungry with good things.

More fundamentally, I think these visions of overflowing abundance encourage us to reject an equation between justice and desert, which has implications not only for how we treat others but how we treat ourselves with that proper self-love which the Gospel tells us should be the measure of our mercy to our brothers and sisters: love your neighbour as yourself.  We are tempted to doubt that God wants to give us good things, because we suspect we do not deserve them, and therefore, we assume that it is not just that we should have them.  From that, it can be a fatally easy step to assuming that it is not just that anyone else should either.

But what if justice is not about getting what we deserve, nor about what our brothers and sisters deserve, but, rather, precisely and only, about things being the way they are meant to be, and what if the way they are meant to be is pictured for us in the banquets portrayed for us in our readings this evening? These, as we have seen are first of all scenes of appetite not merely satisfied but satiated, beyond desert and desire alike. They are also, though, inescapably scenes of upheaval. The rich are sent empty away while the hungry are fed, the high fortifications are cast down. And, in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to be saying that this is non-negotiably part of the Messianic deal: this is how things will be when things are as they should be. His advice to the wedding guest to take the lower seat is not – surely self-evidently – cynical advice on how to get on in society, encouragement to the faux-humility that will endear us to the movers and shakers; rather, it’s a radical destabilisation of every society’s values. The first shall be last, and the last first, and we had better get used to it.  What do we make of all this? In particular, is Jesus commending here  a  sterile – and potentially interminable – series of socio-political dos-y-dos, such that today’s oppressed become, with quasi-inevitability tomorrow’s oppressors?  How would justice be served by that?

The beginnings of an answer, I think, can be found in the Magnificat itself, where Mary tells us that the Lord looks on the lowliness of his handmaid, and a little later speaks of the humble and meek being exalted. In each case, behind Cranmer’s resonant English stands the Latin humilitas, humility, a potentially dangerous word, but also a powerful one. It would, I think, be a serious misreading of the Magnificat to see this exaltation of the humble as being a kind of reward for knowing our place, as if, providing we are only humble enough, then we will be exalted in some heavenly future hermetically sealed from any conceivable political ramifications here below.  But a right understanding of humility also chastens too easy an assumption that there is any simple, one-size fits all method for achieving justice, forbids a blanket endorsement of any one recipe for  bringing about that state of affairs where things are as they should be.  It calls us instead to examine the nitty-gritty particularities of our politics, to see all our ethical decision making in concrete, case by case, down to earth terms.

Because, etymologically speaking, humility has a literally down to earth origin: derived as it is from humus, soil.   In Latin-speaking antiquity, to describe a person as having humility, was to make not so much a moral judgment as a sociological assessment: the humble were the lowest of the low, those on ground level, so to speak, down in the dirt, in distinction from those above them in the pecking order.  But the Christian imagination suggests a profound re-evaluation here. Soil,  after all, according to the book of Genesis, is not merely a symbol of one, particularly lowly, stratum of society, but the raw material from which all of humanity has been crafted, slave and emperor, saint and sinner alike. To enjoin humility in order to keep people in their place, then, is, for the Christian, a blasphemous abuse of language, unless the place we are thinking of here is the radical equality of all God’s children.  And  the lowliness of soil receives further transfiguration in our tradition also: in the first place, because, we are told, it is after his own image that God the malleable stuff of his human creation, and secondly because, in the fullness of time, in Jesus, in the one Mary carries in her womb as her Spirit rejoices in her Saviour, God himself comes into our world precisely as one of us, as one of the lowly made of the dust of the earth.

If we are to seek God’s justice, then, to seek ways to make things be as they should, we must remember of what we, and our brothers and sisters are made, and for what we and our brothers and sisters are made.  We must remember our common fragility and dependence: for soil can be scattered and eroded. But we must remember too our common dignity as bearers of the divine image and brothers and sisters of the one who bears it perfectly.  Mary’s song is indeed the song of all humanity; he that is mighty has magnified all of us in taking flesh of his lowly handmaid. And all our searching for justice, all our attempts to make things be as they should be must be set to its tune.