Leader: The song from the silence

28 May 2008

TOMORROW is the festival of the Visitation — or the Visit, as the Common Worship calendar now puts it — of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. It is easily and often neglected. Nevertheless, it should have a special place in Christians’ hearts as marking the occasion in scripture when the Lord’s mother has the most to say for herself; for it is, above all, the festival of the Magnificat — of our Lady baring her soul. The scriptural record of her words is scant. Nevertheless, even her briefest sayings — “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” “Be it unto me according to thy word,” “Whatever he saith unto you, do it” — have stimulated many hours of thought and devotion. It is not surprising that Christians find inexhaustible riches, then, in the ten verses of her Magnificat.

Filled with the Spirit, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, greets her in the words that have become the second sentence of the Hail Mary. Mary responds with a song drawn from scripture: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. . .” She foresees the future generations who will count her blessed in her Son. She sings of the mercy and strength of God; of his kindness to the poor and the humble and the meek; of his justice. She sets the birth of the Lord in its context as the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in the Hebrew scriptures.

A generation ago, the Magnificat was one of the scriptural passages most familiar to Anglicans: the first of the Gospel canticles at evensong, which was still one of the services most popular among churchgoers. Despite the benefits of the Parish Communion and liturgical revision, the downside is the loss of these canticles and psalms from the list of mental church furnishings that weekly churchgoers all but effortlessly acquire. Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Tell out my soul” is an excellent hymn, and widely known, but it is a loose paraphrase, not a substitute for scripture itself.

Mary bares her soul and her heart. It is no accident that her song of praise emerges from her silent pondering. Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, in the extract from her new book (Faith, page 15), writes of harvesting “hermit moments” of silent presence and listening. While it may be possible (as she suggests in her book) to find these at home or in a supermarket queue, it is also true that for many this is too much to expect. They need their times of prayer in church. Today, however, as much of an endangered species as the singing of evensong is the opportunity to arrive in a church, say, 15 minutes before the service, and enjoy uninterrupted silent prayer. In many churches, talk has taken over. May every parish priest and cathedral dean resolve to make the stilling of this sea of chatter a priority over the coming year. “Holy is his name.”

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