Living The Magnificat: Affirming Catholicism in A Broken World

Chapman, Mark (ed)
Mowbray (2007)
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Affirming Catholicism, notes the introduction to this excellent book, is largely concerned with internal Church of England matters, so it was about time, in 2006, that it turned outwards to the world with a conference theme of: "The Magnificat: God's Cry for Mercy, Justice and Humility". This book, which reflects but does not quite duplicate, its proceedings is a sustained reflection by leading Anglican and Roman Catholic writers on Mary's song, a prayer which is part of the daily Office of both churches but which seems to have been viewed more decoratively than practically over the centuries.

Opening the Conference, James Alison, in an essay so brilliant that it justifies buying the book, explores Marian theology through a discussion of a performance of Rossini's Barber of Seville. Living The Magnificat with Rossini and Mary begins by saying that Ethics without grace tends to moralism and it is therefore appropriate to consider the Magnificat in the context of she who was "Full of Grace", an inspiration for us who are actors in the "Extraordinarily safe drama which is Christianity." He then introduces his audacious use of performance: Rossini as the creator (God) is not visible for he creates for the singer (Mary) and only because she sings so well do we hear what he made, for she "Magnifies" the Creator, literally making him bigger, better known; and so he revels in this, rather than feeling that he is belittled by it, because this is precisely why he wrote the material for the heroine: "There is in principle nothing about praising a creature which diminishes the honour due to the creator when the creature is being praised for her particular excellence in her living out her creatureliness." The Creator could also, in theory, play any or all the parts in his opera but chooses not only creatures in the ordinary sense but, in the figure of The Count Almaviva, creates a particular manifestation of himself (Jesus).

Describing the form of the drama, Alison says: "We can only start from the end because we can only tell stories whose end we already know. ... We recount them forwards but we compose them backwards." ... What Mary was being invited to do by the Angel was to allow herself to be the link place, (as) the portal between the creator out of nothing and the coming into being of everything that is." He then, with a great deal of subtlety and detail, discusses the connection between Jewish Temple and Marian imagery, identifies Mary with the Anawim, the humble people, the underclass; but, quoting Hannah in 2 Samuel 2, God is going to vindicate her and, for that reason, Mary has often been viewed as dangerous (The Magnificat was forbidden in right wing Guatemala in the 1980s) although for us the aesthetics of Evensong often obscure the meaning of the Canticle.

He notes that, contrary to part of the English Protestant tradition, a key concept in the Magnificat is rejoicing for, he points out, all Mary's special days are occasions of rejoicing for, through Mary's grace: "We are much more of a playground and much less of a war zone than we are inclined to think.",

On Alison's theological basis, taking Mary's call for justice literally rather than figuratively, Linda Hogan surveys the logic and obligations of international justice, Sister Margaret Magdalene considers hospitality in the context of near poverty in Botswana and Mongezi Guma illustrates the potential for conflict and community in South Africa.

Mark Chapman, with his customary clarity and eloquence, discusses Christian politics and how easy it is for us to become fixated on church affairs at the expense of the suffering world; Michael Doe surveys contemporary Anglicanism and concludes that the sexuality controversy is a distraction from its witness in countries beset by HIV/AIDS and poverty; and Joe Cassidy challenges Christians to think again about the universality of Christian ethics. Finally, Stephen Cottrell offers a vision of the world turned upside down, calling for a renewed sense of mission, subordinating the churchy to the worldly.

Of course it isn't as good as it was being there, but the talks have been turned into clear and readable essays which fit together nicely; a credit to the organisers and the editor. Mary represents the Anawim, the humble people, the underclass. Mag 1 Hannah 2, God is going to vindicate her. Mary dangerous. (Mag forbidden in right wing Guatemala in the 1980s). John 8:41 reminded that Jesus was illegitimate. Who are the humble and meek? The aesthetics of the Mag can dull our response.