Lent Course 2007: Magnificat


The Magnificat, echoing Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, is one of the most socially direct statements in the New Testament and the most radical prayer in everyday use in the history of Christianity. It is remarkable that its prominence in our liturgy, as the first Canticle of Evensong, has not been reflected in its impact on supposedly Christian institutions where it is said and sung, whereas its aspirations are almost commonplace in secular life.

Let us remind ourselves, using the well loved text of the Book of Common Prayer, what it says:

"My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations. He hath shown strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he hath put down the mighty from their seat; and hath exalted the humble and meek; he hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever." - Luke 1:46-55.

Over and above the fact that this passage, like the one from 1 Samuel, is spoken by a woman, it makes some powerful socio-political claims:

This course is based upon a further statement that follows from these two, expressed succinctly in Theresa of Avila's words: "God has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours":

In order to understand the meaning of the Magnificat we are going to look at the ways in which we interact with each other and see ourselves. We will use four prototype, or representative, figures:

We will also meet six teenagers from a 'sink' estate (Grunge Park) and Mustaq Khan's extended family with its roots in North West Frontier Province, Pakistan.

Together we will learn about how language is used to transmit ideas, how we select and synthesise ideas to find patterns and, using our prototypes, we will think about criminal and social justice and the concepts of power and humility.

The Course will be split into six Units:

Unit One - What Is Truth? The question that all philosophers (and Pontius Pilate - John 18:38) have asked down the centuries is notoriously difficult. In our tradition there has been an attempt to abstract truth from individual and collective experience but in other traditions there is no such distinction. We will examine our own tradition and try to distinguish between fact, truth, theory, paradigm and belief.

Unit Two - Why Stuff Happens. Our tradition is very exercised about causality, about how things happen. At a human level we tend to put more emphasis on motive, on why people do something, rather than on outcome, on what people do and how it affects others. But this is changing in two fundamental ways: first, the idea that anything happens without a definable cause is losing ground; and, so, secondly, even within Christianity there is now a strong tendency to judge (whatever that might mean) on the basis of a supposedly known motive that links an action to an outcome that can be categorised as good or bad.

Units Three - Who made me? How much am I a product of my culture and inheritance and how much am I self made? Unit Three is a homework unit to help each of us to examine ourselves. We will conduct an audit of our power and wealth to see how we compare with poor people in our own country and poor people in developing countries. Then, after studying Units Four and Five, we will come back to look again at our self assessment to see if anything has changed.

Unit Four - Whodunnit? Traditionally we have taken personal circumstances, as a component of motivation, into account when dispensing criminal justice but the trend is now towards less flexible, more punitive measures. Why is there such a strong correlation between poverty, alienation and criminal convictions? What are the purposes of criminal justice? How important is motive compared with outcome? Can we punish and rehabilitate simultaneously?

Unit Five - Whose World? (coming soon) For most of the second half of the 20th Century it was widely believed that it was our responsibility in richer countries to provide development assistance to poorer countries but even in the face of Jubilee 2000 there are many who think that this money has been wasted. At home, while we debate the economics of inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. What have Christians to say about global and local social justice, including justice between generations, an issue raised by the prospect of global warming?

Unit Six - Power Point. (coming soon) After studying Units Four and Five, we will come back to consider what we said about ourselves in Unit Three and whether we see our relationship with less powerful people in the same light.

Without wishing to anticipate the work in the first two Units, it is fair to say that we will be much more interested in the broad principles set out in the Magnificat than with trying to use the Bible as an ethics textbook. At the collective and individual levels (as far as there has been an individual level), notions of criminal and social justice have changed radically since St. John 'laid down his pen', just as they changed between that date and the first Biblical writings more than 600 years before, and notions of personal identity have changed almost beyond recognition since the figure of Abraham emerged from the mists of time. Hopefully, discussion will generate a creative tension between scripture and contemporary ethical sensibilities. This is not a novel situation but has, rather, been an under-current in Christianity throughout its history, manifesting itself in areas as diverse as the relationship between church and state, the relationship between citizens and the state, lawful rebellion, land tenure, the just war, money lending, slavery and genocide.

Our aim is that by the end of the Course we will be much more sure of who we are, how we relate to other people in our own society and how our society relates to the world, particularly to its poorest peoples. We need to consider to what extent we should take The Magnificat at face value and what that may mean for our ethical and spiritual lives.

We may not know exactly how to continue as faithful pilgrims (for we are "Pilgrim" in this course) but at least we will know why.