One can always sense the approach of Christmas: Winter’s bite is in the air; crèches spring up, where permitted; uncles and aunts lay in supplies, most importantly food for the holiday; Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is re-read, again; ACLU lawyers busy themselves preparing suits to prevent Baptist churches from ringing bells in Connecticut, soon to be followed by a suit requiring Catholic churches to remove crosses from steeples lest the sight send village atheists into psychological tailspins; books written by atheists decrying the asininity of the Christian faith are reviewed positively, without a hint of irony, in the Hartford Courant; and somewhere in this land of milk and honey, reporters or commentators once again threaten to start their own religion, unmindful of Voltaire’s advise to a student who asked him how best to go about such a business.
Voltaire said: First you make a nuisance of yourself and get yourself arrested. Then you submit to crucifixion on a cross and die a painful death. And -- here comes the really hard part -- you lie in a tomb for a few days and, finally, raise yourself from the dead.
To bring in the season this year, faith being too important a matter to be left to the ACLU and atheists alone, my wife, her guide dog Jake and I went to Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford to hear a performance of J.S. Bach’s “The Magnificat,” first performed at Vespers on Christmas Day 1723, at the Church of St Nicholas, Lepizig.
“The Magnificat,” also called the canticle of Mary, is found in that section of the Christian bible where Mary the mother of Jesus, hearing that her sister Elizabeth is with child, pays her a visit. As soon as Elizabeth catches sight of her sister, the baby in her womb leaps for very joy. Now, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb is John the Baptist, who from this moment on never stopped leaping for very joy in the presence of God, and this leaping for joy is very much a part of Bach’s angelic music.
To Elizabeth’s joyful greeting – “Blessed are you among women” -- her sister responds in what has come to be called the Canticle of Mary, a part of the Church’s prayer in the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden, for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm: He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.”
In the Magnificat, Bach has set these words to music.
Not for nothing is Mary regarded in some Christian churches as its first and best – meaning most faithful – theologian. She is the first disciple. Discipleship, as in the word “discipline,” involves a striving and an acceptance of salvational truth.
The performance was well attended. Jake, too, was there among the trumpets, timpani, flutes, oboes, strings and continuo, his snout pointed in the direction of the copper colored drums, watchful by my wife’s side, catching a sly wink from one of the musicians and waiting under the high vaulted ceiling for what he knew not, blissful to be with us wherever we were. Then the singers filed in, filling the transept of the church, and the music began, and Mary’s prayerful words of assurance and longing rose like incense up the vaulted height and filled the twilight nuzzling the ceiling with Bach’s baroque five part chorus.
After Bach, who is not prepared to embrace the joy at the very center of Christmas has no love of music, no love of God, no love of Love. To those who love music and God and Love – be joyful in this time of blessed expectations; for in the fullness of time, a savior sleeps in his mother’s arms. But soon it will be done to him according to his word: “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to myself.” That is the eternal message of The Magnificat.