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The Octagon Parish

The Magnificat


Opening hymn – Tell Out My Soul, a paraphrase of the Magnificat written by Bishop  Timothy Dudley-Smith in 1961. 


Speaker Canon Tim Schofield, Precentor, Chichester Cathedral


Songs and St Luke

Since the 4th century three songs from St Luke’s gospel have been part of Christian worship. They are the Benedictus, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis.


Only St Luke of all the gospel writers produces songs. This is because, although he writes primarily for the Gentiles, he looks at things through the lens of the Old Testament. There you find several examples of people breaking into song at key times. Miriam does so in Exodus at the deliverance from Egypt, Deborah has a song in Judges when Israel against all odds defeats the Canaanites and Hannah celebrates the conception of Samuel with a song*. All celebrate the work of God who keeps his word in the face of overwhelming odds.


Joy and grace

St Luke looks both forward and back. Mary sings the Magnificat when she visits her cousin Elizabeth. They are both unexpectedly with child and John leaps with joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of the pre-natal Jesus.


Mary is joyful. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” It is the joy in Mary’s song that witnesses to God’s presence.




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We celebrate the grace of God in Mary each evening at evensong or vespers. “Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name’.


John Tavener’s setting of the Magnificat (written when he was of the Orthodox faith) uses the Orthodox doxology. “Greater in honour than the cherubim and glorious incomparably more than the seraphim, thou who dost bring forth God the Word, and art indeed the Mother of God, thee do we magnify.”


In the icons of the Orthodox church Mary is always shown with her infant, her hand pointing, towards Jesus, guiding us to him, while his is outstretched to her in blessing.


The world turned up side down

The creator of the world is to be born in an obscure part of the Roman Empire. A lowly servant girl from a Middle Eastern village becomes the God bearer. It is her honour to bring forth God, the Word, in Jesus.


“His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”


The Magnificat goes on to tell of a reversal, how the world is turned upside down by God. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted the lowly.” This is a favourite theme in Luke. The mighty are expelled from their corporate boardrooms; a new social order of justice is announced. “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”


The Magnificat has been an inspiration through the ages. Canon Schofield quoted a hymn by Fred Kahn based on the Magnificat. Sounding rather dated now in parts, it reflects the English liberation theology of the ‘60s. ‘Sing we the song that Mary sang, of God at war with human wrong. Sing we of him who deeply cares and still with us our burden bears; he, who with strength the proud disowns, brings down the mighty from their thrones. By him, the poor are lifted up; he satisfies with bread and cup the hungry men of many lands; the rich are left with empty hands. He calls us to revolt and fight with him for what is just and right, to sing and live Magnificat in crowded street and council flat.’


The old covenant and the new.

The Magnificat is sung at Vespers or Evening Prayer when one day is ending and we look towards a new day. Mary sings of the promise God made in the past to Abraham. “He [God] has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.” This old covenant is to be replaced.


The new covenant begins with Mary’s words “Let it be”. These are very significant words with echoes of Genesis, ‘Let there be light’. “Let it be to me according to thy word” paves the way for the conception of Jesus and the new covenant.


St Luke stands between the Old Testament and the New looking back to Abraham and forward to Jesus and the power of God to make things new. He tells a song of joy and God with us.


*From Hannah’s song

“The bows of the mighty are broken but the feeble are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren have born seven but she who has many children is forlorn.” 1 Samuel 1 v4-5


Organ recital. Malcolm Brinson spoke about some of the composers who had set the Magnificat to music and played two examples by Pachelbel.


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