During this first week of the Christian New Year, I wondered whether I might choose a suitable prayer as a focus for this year’s Advent season. That question reminded me that when I was a pastor, I once used the four Sundays of Advent to focus the congregation’s attention on four prayers associated with the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel: the prayers of Mary, Zechariah, angels, and Simeon. With that memory, a phrase came to mind: “…and who am I to merit your attention?” This line comes from a hymn based on Mary’s prayer, which she prayed while she was pregnant with Jesus. (Her prayer is often titled ‘The Magnificat’ after it’s opening line in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum—My soul magnifies the Lord [Luke 2:46-55].)
During a retreat in 2003, I joined a group of leaders who reflected on Mary in a prayerful way. Afterwards, I wrote that during the second day of the retreat, the participants
looked like all the other adult campers walking to the dining hall, bundled in their rain jackets and hats. They also looked very strange. They were walking extraordinarily slowly and in total silence: one foot forwards, a pause, another step, pause, step, pause. It took them half an hour to walk only a few hundred feet.
On the first evening of the retreat, the leaders had asked the participants
to portray Gabriel coming to one of them today with the message, “Greetings, Mary, you who are highly favoured; the Lord is with you.” Saturday morning each person spent an hour alone, imagining being Mary in this scene, experiencing her surprise, struggle and surrender. Before lunch, the participants imitated the pregnant Mary travelling to Elizabeth. On this contemplative prayer walk, taking only one step with every breath, the retreatants focused on waiting for God to act. During the walk, each person paused to thank God for someone who, like Elizabeth, believed in them. [from the MB Herald]
Those two days of entering imaginatively into aspects of Mary’s experience, gave me a new sense of the profundity of the Christmas carol about Christ being “born in us today.” I’ve therefore decided to use The Magnificat as a daily prayer this Advent.
The Magnificat has much of the character of a Psalm; it reads like a poetic prayer that is meant to be sung or chanted by a congregation. When I regularly led worship services, however, I had a hard time finding versions of this prayer that could be sung by a congregation. Certainly the grand settings (like Bach’s) are not meant for congregational singing (although John Michael Talbot’s setting might work). I have, however, sung a hymn based on The Magnificat when I’ve sat with the community of St. Benedict’s on the Red at their evening prayers. Sr. Mary David Callahan has rewritten The Magnificat as a hymn and personal prayer, and has succeeded in capturing many key images and themes from Mary’s Psalm.
As my Advent focus, I’ve decided to pray Callahan’s version of The Magnificat. Here are a few of my initial thoughts about each of the hymn’s five stanzas. Although these comments are rather disjointed, I see them as the first entries in what could be my journaling on praying The Magnificat this year.
#1) Mary’s prayer invites me to thank God, but I do so out of a sense of surprise—surprise because God offers me life in spite of my limitations and shortcomings.
#2) Being thankful is the doorway into joy, as I once heard a preacher say. Also, in the Psalms and the Beatitudes the words ‘happy’ and ‘blessed’ are closely related.
#3) As we humans revere God—that is, recognize that God is God and we are not—we discover God’s unending generosity towards us. And this has been true throughout all of history, and is still true today.
#3 and #4) In light of 2015’s personal and nation-wide troubles so evident nearby and around the globe, I am struck to read that God exposes and reverses three kinds of failings: moral failings such as pride, political failures such as domination on large and small scales, and economic failures such as the poverty we allow to exist alongside great wealth. It seems that I don’t see these reversals often enough; and yet when I do, there I want to acknowledge God’s actions. That’s faith.
#5) ‘Israel’ is the New Testament’s name for God’s people everywhere, not for the modern State of Israel. Therefore this prayer is not just about me or you, but is about all God’s people. This stanza reminds me that through all of human history, God has been on a mission to rescue humanity out of its troubles and into God’s reconciled ways of living with Jesus.
I expect that most mothers-to-be are aware that they are embarking into a new and unpredictable future. Mary must have shared that awareness, but her sense of uncertainty was probably magnified by the remarkable declarations made to her by Gabriel, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna. As Mary headed into what she could not see, she prayed. That is faith.
With the prayer of Mary the mother of Jesus, may “God bless us, every one.”
I sing your praises God with all my heart,
And I rejoice in you O God of life,
For you have looked upon my lowliness,
And who am I to merit your attention?
I may henceforth regard myself as happy,
Because you have done great things for me.
And every generation gives assent,
For you are God and your name is holy.
You give your grace anew in every age,
to those who live in reverence all their lives.
Grace is your strength but you unmask all pride;
You strip us bare of our self-conceit.
Dethroned are those who hold authority,
and poor and humble people you uphold.
You give in great abundance to the hungry,
and send the rich away with empty hands.
Your people Israel you have remembered,
for mercy has been sent to all the faithful,
Just as you promised to those before us,
to Abraham, to Sara, their children forever.
CREDITS: Hymn by Sr. Mary David Callahan; © Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA. Icon by Sorin Apostolescu (1960- ), Romania.