Thank you. Two words. So simple. So difficult. Another year is drawing to its end. Many things have happened. I worked less and spend more time with my family. I enjoyed a beautiful spring in our garden. I saw my daughter grow up and I have reasons to be very proud of her. I drew strength from a loving partnership and kept my mind busy through fascinating books and music. Thank you for all that. I feel very lucky.
Tonight, millions of Christians celebrate Christmas Eve. According to St. Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant. Having learned this news, Mary visited her sister Elizabeth. Upon seeing her, Elizabeth praised Mary with the solemn words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Mary replied: “My soul glorifies the Lord […]”. In Latin, this would give you: Magnificat anima mea Dominum […].
Mary’s praise set to music
Around 1725, the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka set Mary’s praise to music: the Magnificat ZWV 108. It has been recorded in 2012 by Guy De Mey, Kurt Widmer and the Instrumentalists of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. It is beautiful. Truly beautiful. Zelenka worked all his life at the Saxon court in Dresden as a double bass player and composer for church music. He had been educated by Jesuit priests in Prague and had studied with Johann Joseph Fux, a master of counterpoint*, in Vienna.
Being a Catholic, Zelenka was selected as Court Composer for Church Music by Saxonia’s ruler Frederic August I., who had converted to Catholicism to become King of Poland. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit order, who vows a special veneration to Mary, promoted the cult of the Holy Virgin as a way to strenghten ordinary folks’ piety and to make central elements of the Catholic faith more accessible to peasants attracted by the Protestant message. Zelena’s interest in the biblical figure of Mary should therefore not come as a surprise.
St. Luke’s gospel and the Quran
I imagine Mary a strong woman. When Gabriel showed up in Galilee and explained what was about to happen, she remained cool. She wasn’t afraid. She didn’t doubt that Gabriel spoke the truth. She just wondered how she, a virgin, could become a mother. And when Elizabeth greeted her with the words that would later become part of the prayer “Ave Maria”, she wasn’t surprised. She knew. She believed. And therefore she glorified God as the one caring about the poor, the hungry, the powerless. The one to do justice and to overthrow the mighty, the rich and the arrogant.
At the same time, Mary was a very humble person. She identified herself rather with the poor, hungry and powerless than the mighty, rich and arrogant. Being selected by God to give birth to Jesus did not make her cocky. “And Mary […] testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His Revelations, and was one of the devout (servants)”, it says in Surah 66.12 of the Quran. Oh yes, in the Quran. Did you know that one of the longer surahs of the Quran, number 19, has the title “Mary”? It corresponds to the first chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. Mary is the only woman the Quran refers to by name. Confronted with God, she was a humble believer, but among her peers, she was an exceptional woman. For Christians and Muslims.
I am lucky to live a happy life. I am grateful to live a happy life. I would like to be as strong and as humble in my faith as Mary was. Peace upon you. 💫
© Charles Thibo