Prayer – where rubber of faith hits the road of reality

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 20, 2006

The other day my son Reg and I were out shopping for gifts. Somehow the topic of prayer came up, and Reg commented: “Prayer is where the rubber of faith hits the road of reality.”

Writing as a Christian, I’d like to use Reg’s insight as the basis for this year’s Christmas column, a look at the Magnificat, that prayerful poem attributed to Mary the Mother of Jesus.

Like a rose, the Magnificat, Mary’s exultation in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, transcends the ages in the beauty of both form and message.

The poem appears at the end of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke (verses 46–55). According to the biblical context, Mary has already conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Being told by an angel that her elderly relative Elizabeth is also expecting, Mary hurries across country to spend time with her.

Arriving at Elizabeth's, Mary is greeted with those immortal words, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Luke 1:42).

Elizabeth then gives Mary a second blessing, this time because of Mary's trust that "there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" (v. 45).

Mary responds: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior..." (vv. 46-47).

Thus begins the Magnificat (so named because magnificat is the verb that opens its Latin translation).

If you have a Bible handy, you may want to follow along in it so that we can enjoy together some of the beauty and power of this treasure.

The structure of this 18-line poem in itself is splendid to behold.

Its themes crisscross each other in inverted relationships, much like two pairs of ski tracks crisscrossing each other down a virgin slope (a literary technique known as chiasmus and often seen in the poetry of ancient Israel).

Notice, for example, the inverted relationship of the themes in verses 46–49: in praise of God, vv. 46–47; God's favour, v. 48a; Mary's blessedness, v. 48b; God's favour, v. 49a; in praise of God, v. 49b.

The intensity of God's favour is highlighted by the structural beauty of the next set of verses, characterized by an even more intricate crisscrossing of a pair of themes, God's mercy toward meek, and God's judgment of proud: God's mercy, v. 50; God's judgment, v. 51; God's judgment, v. 52a; God's mercy, v. 52b; God's mercy, v. 53a; God's judgment, v. 53b.

The poem concludes (vv. 54–55) with a return to the theme of God's favour. Instead of Mary rejoicing in God's favour specifically toward her, however, now she's rejoicing in God's favour toward his covenant servant Israel as a whole, and by extension, to all people of a good heart toward God.

Indeed, the elements of favour and mercy are like the petals of a rose, balanced layer by layer, embracing the heart of love.

Throughout the poem are found examples of parallelism, as well, another pleasing structural feature. Sometimes two lines are paralleled to say the same thing: "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. / He has brought down the powerful from their thrones..." (vv. 51b–52a)

Other times two lines are paralleled to say the opposite thing: "He has filled the hungry with good things, / and sent the rich away empty." (v. 53)

The message of the Magnificat is also rich in subtler beauty, and is powerful in ways not unlike the scent of a rose.

For Mary's words possess a fragrance that evokes the memory of another woman's rejoicing a thousand years earlier, when Hanna rejoiced in her miracle baby, Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1–10). Now, according to Christian tradition, similar words rejoice in the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

In pointing to the Lord, who always keeps his promises, Mary unlocks the hope nestled deep in the heart of all people of good will.

Hers was a hope, not of wishful thinking, or selfish ambition, or desire for material things, but a hope founded on God’s promises. She was rejoicing in answered prayer – the collective prayer of generations of her people who hungered and thirsted for God’s light-giving justice to prevail in a world darkened by inhumanity, greed and arrogant pride.

Hers was a prayer of rejoicing in God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. (Luke 1:52–53)

Mary’s beautiful prayer of praise and thanksgiving attests to the rubber of her faith in the invisible God hitting the road of visible human reality in the arrival of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this sacred season.

Merry Christmas, my coffee companions. And like Mary’s spirit, may your spirit, too, rejoice in God our Saviour.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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