22 March 2008

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 5

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 5: Magnifcat by Arvo Pärt

As fewer and fewer people come to Evening Prayer in our parish churches on Sundays, we are in danger of forgetting that Magnificat or the Song of Mary is one of the great traditional canticles for Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion. And so I have chosen the Magnifcat as our final piece of music for this evening’s reflections.

This canticle echoes several Old Testament passages, especially the Song of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 2: 1-10). In the Orthodox Church, Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins.

The words of the canticle are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 1: 46-55), in the account of Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. After Mary greets Elizabeth, the child who is to be born, John the Baptist, moves inside Elizabeth’s womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings the Magnificat in response.

The child leaping in the womb can be seen as a haunting prefiguring of those who leap with joy in the depths of death when they hear that Christ is coming to visit them from the tomb. Mary’s words in Magnificat are a harrowing of all the hells in our lives. Wickedness and the misuse and abuse of power are being thrown aside by her son. The greatness of the Lord is proclaimed. He descends to the lowly and with his arm lifts them up. This was the promise made to Abraham and the faithful of the past; it is true for us today; and it is true for the future and for all time.

As Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are sung almost every day in many Anglican cathedrals and chuches, there is a real need for multiple settings of these canticles. Nearly every composer in the 19th and 20th century Anglican choral tradition composed one or more settings of the “Mag and Nunc.” At its extreme, this led such composers as Ireland’s Charles Villiers Stanford to write a Magnificat in every major key, or Herbert Howells to publish 20 settings of these canticles during his career.

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat is probably his most immediately appealing work. But in this Magnificat, which was first performed in Berlin in 1989, he ignores the classical settings for Magnificat from previous centuries. Instead, he gives us a Magnificat with a strong spiritual aura that is intensely serene as we listen.

This is the fifth of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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