31 May 2012

The Magnificat … a challenge to tradition and reaction

The Visitation … a panel in the 19th Century neo-Gothic altarpiece from Oberammergau in the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, today [31 Mary] recalls the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.

The story is told in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1: 39-56). When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, they are both pregnant – Mary with the Christ Child and Elizabeth with John the Baptist.

This feast day is celebrated in the Western Church on 31 May, and on 30 March in the Eastern Church.

On this day we recall how Mary, immediately after the Annunciation [25 March], leaves Nazareth and travels south to an unnamed “Judean town in the hill country,” perhaps Hebron outside Jerusalem, to visit Elizabeth. When she arrives, although he is still in his mother’s womb, John the Baptist is aware of the presence of Christ and the unborn child leaps for joy.

Elizabeth too recognises that Christ is present, and declares to Mary: with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 42-44).

Mary responds to Elizabeth immediately with the words that we now know as the Magnificat, one of the best loved canticles.

So we see, side-by-side, two women, one seemingly too old to have a child, but destined to bear the last prophet of the Old Covenant, of the age that was passing away; and the other woman, seemingly too young to have a child, but about to give birth to him who is the beginning of the New Covenant, the age that would not pass away.

The Russian Orthodox Gorneye Convent in Jerusalem is said to stand on the traditional site of this meeting.

Today’s feast dates back to mediaeval times, when it was first kept by the early Franciscans. In 1263, on the recommendation of Saint Bonaventure, it was formally adopted by the Franciscans. From them, it soon spread throughout the Western Church. In 1389, Pope Urban VI placed the Visitation in the calendar of the church on 2 July, the day after the end of the octave following the feast of the birth of Saint John the Baptist. Among Anglicans, this date passed into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

However, in 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the date to 31 May, which falls between the Annunciation (25 March) and the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June) – and chronologically a time when John the Baptist was still in the womb his mother, Saint Elizabeth.

The celebration of the feast day in the Eastern Orthodox Church is a recent innovation, introduced in the 19th century at the suggestion of Father Antonin Kapustin, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Jerusalem in the late 19th century.

On Father Antonin’s suggestion, Russian nuns built the Gorneye Convent in Jerusalem and began living there. The Church of the Meeting of the Most Holy Virgin Mary with Saint Elizabeth was consecrated at the convent on 30 March 1883, and this consecration led to the introduction of this feast to the Orthodox calendar.

So, Anglicans have been ahead of the Orthodox Church in placing this feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Church. It is sad, then, that Mary can be divisive for those in the Protestant and Catholic traditions, in the wider church and within Anglicanism.

There are numerous cathedrals churches in the Church of Ireland and throughout the Anglican Communion dedicated to Saint Mary, including the cathedrals in Limerick, Sligo (joint dedication) and Tuam, many of our cathedrals have Lady Chapels, and the Anglican-administered shrines in these islands include: Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, Our Lady of Pew, Westminster, and Our Lady and Three Kings in Haddington, Scotland.

The only possible interpretation of Article 2 of the 39 Articles is an affirmation of Mary’s title as Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God: “The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man …” And other interpretations quickly lead to Arianism, Nestorianism or Monophysitism.

The divisions among Anglicans over the place of Mary are probably founded on perceptions of Mariology within the Roman Catholic tradition. On the other hand, many of my neighbours who come out with statements that reflect what they have been told since childhood – such as “You don’t believe in Mary” – are surprised when they are told the canticle Magnificat is traditional part of Anglican Evensong ever since the Reformation.

Personally I prefer Mary of the Visitation to Mary of the plaster-cast statues, Mary of Magnificat who is revolutionary to Mary of the Rosary:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
who has looked with favour on his lowly servant;
from this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
God has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
The Lord has shown strength• with his arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel.
to remember the promise of mercy,
The promise made to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be for ever. Amen.


Zephaniah 3: 14 -18; Psalm 113; Romans 12: 9-16; Luke 1: 39-49 [50-56].


Mighty God,
by whose grace Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary
and greeted her as the mother of the Lord:
Look with favour on your lowly servants
that, with Mary, we may magnify your holy name
and rejoice to acclaim her Son our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious God,
who gave joy to Elizabeth and Mary
as they recognised the signs of redemption at work within them:
Help us, who have shared in the joy of this eucharist,
to know the Lord deep within us
and his love shining out in our lives,
that the world may rejoice in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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