This has been a tumultuous year. A year with war and rumor of war, where the stranger and alien are neither welcomed nor comforted. A year filled with oppression and with hope. In this year, we have fasted from social media, and we often took refuge in the daily prayer of the monastic office. In the monastic office, the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise, is sung toward the end. And every evening we find time to pray, we are always uplifted by Mary’s song. When we are at St. John’s Abbey we often walk the 2-mile pilgrimage to Mary’s Chapel to visit her statue there, and Almut sings this song to the woods and the lake. I love to hear Almut sing it in the monastic office too, in evenings. In this Christmas season, we pray it now with comfort and hope, and with foreboding of the mighty wind of Justice.
The song is a canticle of justice finally being done, of a deliverer finally coming to the aid of the oppressed. It is part of a long tradition of Hebrew women in scripture who sing pointed praise songs about a deliverer who "triumphs gloriously" in favor of the oppressed (this last quoted phrase comes from the song of Miriam after the Hebrews are delivered from Egypt).
The poem is set at the Visitation, a meeting of Mary, now pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth her cousin, also pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth begins the conversation with her own blessing of Mary: "blessed is she who has believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken." Then Mary speaks of what she has believed, and sings praise for the deliverer who is coming:
My soul proclaims the Lord’s greatness,
And my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Because he has looked upon the low estate of his slave.
For see: Henceforth all generations will bless me;
Because the Mighty One has done great things to me.
And holy is his name,
and his mercy is for generations and generations to those who fear him.
He has worked power with his arm,
He has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has pulled dynasts down from thrones and exalted the humble,
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has given aid to Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
Just as he promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed, throughout the age.
The vigor of this language is of a piece with other Hebrew women’s praise songs. But it comes through clearly in this luminous new translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart. God is the agent and humans rise and fall at God’s will. One small preposition shocks me. “The Mighty One has done great things to me.” Not for me, but to me. I may have hoped for the dynasts to be pulled down, or the rich to be sent away empty. But the Mighty One is not doing this for me. I am just one instrument in this great working out of God’s will. It happens to me.
Great events are occurring. I may be blessed (blissful, says Hart’s translation) if I believe, but God’s kingdom roars by anyway, like the rolling of mighty waters. I may be honored if I say, with Mary, “may it happen to me as you have said.” But, also without me, God’s unrelenting will stalks the great and the small on silent cat’s feet and in the quiet of the night. The Mighty One will do great things to us.
So here is the good news this Christmas Day. On this day God incarnate is coming into the world, like the rushing of a mighty wind. On this day, a towering, unimaginable thing is happening; a thing that will reduce dynasts to dust, that will leave great theologians stuttering and arguing amongst themselves, and will make the wise ones fall silent. On this day, comes a Spirit that will exalt the humble and fill the hungry with good things.
And on this day, you are here as a witness.
Listen! Can you hear the rising wind?
Here is a practice modified from the Jesuit spiritual exercises on the song of Mary. It is designed to help you find the meaning of this song for where you are right now.
First, make a place where you are comfortable, sitting or lying. If you play music, let it be something that does not draw the attention, but lets it wander. You might light candles to gently focus attention. Have with you the Bible story, and something with which to take notes at the end. This can be old fashioned paper or modern technology, but it should be something that does not distract.
Now take three to five minutes to simply concentrate on your breathing. Relax, breathe, welcome your breath. Then welcome the Spirit of God in your imagination.
Now quietly and slowly read Mary’s Song. What words and phrases stand out? What images most strike you? What parts of the praise song can you gladly say? Connect with that joy and dwell in it? If it is a bit scary, welcome that part too, and ask what is there. Finally, read the first 5 lines, and ask what things has God done to you. Can you welcome them with this song of praise?
Rest. Take notes of your observations, so you might return to them. Then take a minute to end your meditation with a prayer of gratitude.