The Song of Mary

The Magnificat in Latin

The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the Magnificat in Latin.

A year ago, I was hired to write occasional homilies and commentaries for FAITH Catholic Publishing. My most recent assignment included the Gospel text for December 22nd (Luke 1:46-55), more commonly known as The Magnificat.

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It was a rare opportunity to write on this great hymn of the church. I found myself wanting to draw on the numerous beautiful settings, from the chants of the Liturgy of the Hours, to choral settings by J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Schubert, and Arvo Pärt. Then I remembered my intended audience—and the 450 word limit for weekday homilies—and went a different way.

But here on my professional blog, I can write about whatever I want, and I set the word limit. I can include music clips too.

Angel Man!

1994 Oregon Bach Festival Poster (aka “Angel Man”)

This summer will mark twenty years since my first trip to Oregon. I drove up that summer to attend the 25th annual Oregon Bach Festival (this first of several I would attend as a composition student). That year, the festival commissioned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt to write a new work—The Litany. I got to see the rehearsals, the rewrites, and the premiere. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

So what does that have to do with The Magnificat? Well, there were many concerts during the festival. Lots of Bach, of course, several Pärt works, and music by may other composers—mostly old warhorses, but some new stuff too. The one—besides The Litany premiere—that I remember best was a choral concert at Central Presbyterian Church a few block west of the U of O campus that was bookmarked by two Magnificat settings.  One by Bach, and one by Pärt.

It was an extraordinary experience to hear how two great composers born 250 years apart set the same almost-two-thousand-year-old text.

First, J.S. Bach …

And then, Arvo Pärt …

In my homily, I wrote that the Song of Mary is the Song of the Church. Hearing these two settings again reinforces that point. This is a text that speaks to the deepest and most human desires. It looks beyond the seeming hopelessness of a broken world to a fulfillment of all the dreams of the humble and lowly. It is a universal song for a universal church, and it is a new today as it was when it first parted Mary’s lips.


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