This passage from Luke is sometimes referred to as “Mary’s Song of Praise.” In the early Catholic church, it was incorporated into the liturgy and remains so today as part of the service of the “Visitation,” marking Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. When each heard that the other was expecting a child, they rejoiced. It seems the relationship between Mary and her cousin may have been a refuge for the young mother-to-be, a place where she could express her true feelings about being chosen by God for the daunting task of raising his son. Can you imagine being in her position, having to walk in profound faith fearing that no one will believe the story you tell them about how you became pregnant before being married? One could easily understand if young Mary felt isolated and afraid, yet she thanked God for this blessing.
Because of its popularity in Christian liturgy, the Magnificat (from the Latin for “my soul magnifies the Lord”), has long been the second most popular biblical text set to music by generations of composers. In my musical career, having performed so many different settings of this text, none resonates with me more than the magical work in D major (BWV 243) by Johann Sebastian Bach. (1685-1750). At the time Bach wrote his Magnificat in 1733, the liturgical Feast of the Visitation would have fallen around July 2 in the German Lutheran Church. In most modern churches, the Magnificat text now falls during Advent and Christmas and is regularly observed on the third Sunday in Advent in many denominations. On the third Sunday in Advent we light the pink candle on the Advent Wreath, which symbolizes joy.
Bach did not have an easy life - he was not recognized for his tremendous genius in his own lifetime. While in Leipzig, the time period in which he wrote the Magnificat, he served three main churches as music director and organist as well as being master of the choir school. He wrote original cantatas for every single Sunday for an entire year as well as larger works for high festivals. All of his organ and choral works are sacred save one, dedicated in his own hand to the “Glory of God” (soli Deo gloria). His Magnificat is full of joy and light revealing his deep faith in God. It contains some of his most sublime writing, with each verse of scripture an entire movement in the overall work. It is written in the key of D Major, considered the most bright, joyful key of all thirty musical keys. Handel wrote his famous “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah in D for instance.
Right now, I’m sure many of us are struggling to find joy and hope during this strange time in our lives. With so many suffering losses as a result of the pandemic, things seem horribly sad and confusing not to mention never-ending. Winter is frequently a difficult time for many as the days become shorter and colder. With less than 10 hours of daylight, darkness envelops us. Like both Mary and Bach, some feel overwhelmed by circumstances. But Mary and Bach chose to look for God’s presence in their lives and focus on the joy of the moment rather than fear of the future. The season of Advent is about hope and preparing for something great. It is the time of year we Christians wait with expectation for the light of Christ. Right now, the world has enough darkness. Consider the things which bring you joy and hope and turn your attention to God’s presence in your own life. How will you let Christ’s light shine through you each day?
If you are interested in watching a performance of Bach’s Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243 I recommend this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsUWG2axB3w