Next time you go to McDonald’s, take the straw in your Diet Coke, and squeak it up and down inside its plastic lid. Try different speeds, a sixteenth-note pattern for example. Hear it? That’s J.S. Bach, I’m telling you. The Magnificat chorus, where each section in turn sings “Ma-ha-haha-haha-haha-hahahg-neeee-fee-caht!” They don’t even get to the anima mea at all in the first movement. Nope, three minutes of singing nothing but magnificat.
Here’s a taste, if you’re not familiar with the work. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlKcMJwcgq4
I get too excited about the period instruments in this video for the soda thing to be safe.
In 2004 my choir at New York Avenue Presbyterian joined with the Lewinsville, VA Presbyterians to sing Bach’s Magnificat. What a challenge. On the stationary bike at the gym, for weeks, instead of a trashy novel I pulled out my score and sang just above the din of the gears so I could learn the soprano part for the choruses.
Omnes generationes, the title of this post, is another movement in the Magnificat. I don’t remember the melody line but I do remember our choir director’s specific coaching here: to emphasize the German consonants and consonant blends. This when not all of us had yet mastered our Latin vowels. (Dear Stan, he’s a funny one. He once had us sing a composition by his cousin Ulfar in “Icelandic Latin.”)
Omnes generationes, all generations, will call me blessed. So said the virgin Mary when Gabriel delivered the message that she’d soon conceive and carry the Christ-child.
Here’s what I think she really said.
A few days later, when Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, that’s when–in my imagining of the story, anyway–she saw the empowering side of her situation and decided that her soul should, in fact, magnify the Lord. Rather than beat the messenger of the Lord.
Remember that Elizabeth, now well along in her pregnancy with the baby who’d later be John the Baptist, was Mary’s much older kinswoman. Her elder. I imagine her talking down one pretty freaked-out teenager and explaining, while admitting to her own incomplete comprehension, that God is good. All the time.
I grew up geographically distanced from the elders in my family, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins as well. They were and are all wonderful people I’m glad I could visit once a year, but circumstances didn’t allow me to simply run to their homes when I was scared or confused about something. That’s why I’ve stayed in the church.
I hang about church a lot also because I’m a pastor’s wife, but those who know me don’t take my presence there for granted. I cuss (mostly when alone). I drink (mostly with company). I’d rather rally on Capitol Hill for Cuba Action Day than pray, sometimes. I come to church because I need family, elders. To be an elder myself, because I live three time zones away from my nephews and can’t be an in-person elder for them.
I’ll always remember Lila, bless her heart, she was 300 pounds or more. With missing teeth and sparse grey hair falling out of its bun, she was my beautiful grandma that day when I was six, helping me up and bringing me a wet paper towel for my lip when I bit it playing in that long hallway in the church basement.
And Mary Lea, who died of cancer recently but was mom to my sister’s best friend Lori. There must have been times when she taught my sister lessons that would never have penetrated had they come from our mom. But to me, Mary Lea was a fellow traveler.
On our 1995 Presbytery of the Peaks trip to Central America, one evening found our delegation of seven–2 in their sixties, 2 in their forties, and 3 of us teenagers–circled on the cool concrete floor of our hotel, with Mary Lea sobbing. We were trying to process all we’d learned so far on our journey, and Mary Lea could no longer articulate. Faith overtaking injustice. Could it be that a grownup in my parents’ peer group was having as much trouble with that concept as I was?
We questioned whether we’d ever understand how God could be with guerrillas, or governments, or with any individual or community when the earth shakes from tectonic activity or war. Just a few nights before, we’d sat for three hours listening to the testimony of Gladys Baez: of her imprisonment during Nicaragua’s civil war; of her continuing desire to realize the goals of the Sandinista revolution in the face of disillusionment.
I’ve struggled through some questions of faith with people who are my flesh and blood, and I do think it’s OK to mix religion and family get-togethers, but it’s hard to do this well when you see your family rarely. For the daily messes I choose to tuck myself safely (or unsafely) in with the generations of other people’s families and be absorbed into them. I need help to understand why Mary said her soul doth magnify the Lord. So I also join with the generations to call Mary blessed. And Mary Lea too.