The Magnificat
A Christian Manifesto?

Graham Dowell

There is a story of one Rabbi Menahem who had to respond to a crazy man announcing the liberation of Israel from the top of a mountain. As the self-styled prophet blew on his trumpet the people all thought this spelt freedom. Not so Rabbi Menahem. He went to his window, opened it and looked at the world outside. Sadly he muttered: "What I see is no renewal". If Christians are ever tempted to indulge in triumphalism, they need only open their windows and look out on a world that bears the marks of Christ's Passion, certainly, but few signs of his Resurrection and Paschal Victory. .

At first sight, Mary's Magnificat seems all too triumphalist, almost too good to be true. 1 It has been called a 'Christian Manifesto', 'a public declaration.. .making known past actions and motives of action announced as forthcoming' (OED). The hope -- of the Kingdom, God's New Deal for the poor and oppressed, the Anawim or Poor Ones of Israel -- is rooted in the historical experience of Exodus, Exile and Restoration. Mary's faith is Abrahamic and is presented by Luke as the model for Christian believers who look for solid ground for the hope that is in them. True, the signs of God's saving action in the here-and-now can only be perceived by the eye of faith; in themselves they are ambiguous and ambivalent, as we see in the opposing interpretations of those 'false prophets' attacked by Jeremiah who 'cry peace where there is no peace'.

We may compare this with Luke's record of Jesus' own opening Manifesto, proclaimed in his first sermon at his home town of Nazareth (4, 16-30). Quoting Isaiah 61, he announces the dawn of a new era -- liberation, healing, 'good news to the poor', a Jubilee Year. General applause from his audience rapidly turns to fury when the preacher hints that it is not all good news for the privileged and that Gentiles also are expected to benefit. In fact, it is almost the end, not the beginning of the story, and Jesus narrowly escapes being lynched. He has come to 'his own' and they have thrown him out.

We may also compare it with that other celebrated Manifesto which has in some sense helped to change the course of history, Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Although Engels certainly assisted in its production it is largely the work of Marx himself. Appearing first in 1848, in German, it passed almost unnoticed and only later, refined, expanded and passing through numerous editions, was seen to contain the essential doctrines of the movement and became the sacred text for millions of adherents. If we select some of its major themes I suggest that some interesting similarities and contrasts with Luke's 'Christian Manifesto' emerge:-

1. Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord: rejoice, my spirit, in God my Saviour. We proclaim the new social gospel. Our task is to win the battle of democracy; the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all.
2. So tenderly has he looked upon his servant, humble as she is. The proletariat have overcome their impotence and pauperism and seized the commanding heights of national economies.
3. For, from this day forth, all generations will count me blessed. The history of all existing society is the history of class struggles. Today, all European powers acknowledge the power of Communism.
4. So wonderfully has he dealt with me, the Lord, the Mighty One. We have established the community of women, who are no longer mere instruments of production, or prostitutes exploited by the bourgeoisie. We have stopped the exploitation of children and replaced home education by social education.
5. His name is Holy: his mercy sure from generation to generation toward those who fear him. We have rescued the people from exploitation, the self-interest and cash values of the bourgeoisie, and restored workers' self-worth.
6. The deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might. Whereas Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart- burnings of the aristocrat, we have established true freedom, equality and fraternity.
7. The arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout. We have released the powers of Nature and put them at the service of men. We have applied all rents of land to public purposes and abolished all right of inheritance.
8. He has torn imperial powers from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. We have brought waste-lands into cultivation and established communes, state farms and collectives.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent away empty. We have distributed the population equally throughout the country and centralized all credit in the hands of the State.
10. He has ranged himself at the side of Israel his servant: firm in his promise to our forefathers. We have deprived the bourgeoisie of their power to subjugate the labour of others in the interests of profit.
11. He has not forgotten to show mercy to Abraham and his children's children, for ever. We have fulfilled the aspirations of Owenites, Chartists and Reformists, and overcome national differences and antagonisms between peoples and classes.

(1) Given the vastly different tone and purpose of the two documents, both are productions of tiny movements which make astonishing claims to changing the course of history and the destiny of nations -- 'turning the world upside down'. The one claims the victory of the God of Abraham, the other the inevitable tide of history. But the tiny mustard seed was in the former case twelve men and a handful of women: in the latter, 'the Communist League' which was largely the creation of, and the cover for, two men, Marx and Engels, in 1847/8 .2

We do not know precisely the target readership Luke had in mind; most probably it was meant for use by preachers and missionaries to the Gentile world, rather than private readers like 'most excellent Theophilus', who may anyway be not a particular person but a representative 'god-fearer'. Marx, like Luke, clearly wanted to refute some of the false impressions of the new movement and 'meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a Manifesto of the party itself. His was designed to be a rallying cry for the oppressed and to silence the rumours circulated by the ruling classes: "Workers of all countries, Unite!"

(2) Both writers seek to place their Manifestos in a historical context; they emerge from a recognisable chrysalis. Luke clearly uses the model of Hannah's Song of Praise for the birth of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 2,1-10). At the end of the Birth-Narrative he even specifically quotes 1 Sam. 2,26: "And the child Samuel grew on and was in favour with the Lord and also with men", as if to underline the Jewish salvation-history on which his own is based. So close is the association that Mary's mother was widely believed to be called Anna (= Hannah).

Mary is depicted as setting her personal destiny against the backcloth of God's protection of his people down the ages. The recurrent use of the perfect tense throughout the poem conveys the certainty that these are the permanent characteristics of God -- the way things are in the Kingdom: this is the rock-solid platform from which the new movement is to be launched. A pious Jewess would have been as familiar as Jesus himself with the language of the Psalms where 'scattering God's enemies', feeding the hungry and caring for the poor are recurring themes which are picked up again in Jesus's first sermon at Nazareth.

Marx also uses the perfect tense even though the 'victory' he proclaims can only be a prospective, ideological one and hardly more visible than that of the tiny Judaeo-Christian movement. The majestic sweep from ancient Rome, through the feudal systems and the emergence of modern bourgeois society is seen as a 'preparatio evangelica' for the victory of True Democracy. The contribution of other movements -- Owenites, Chartists, Reformists etc. -- is generously acknowledged, as is the witness of Israel, the Servant People, in Mary's Magnificat. Marx would have imbibed the eschatological language of Jewish culture: the concept of the end- time, Messianic judgement and fulfilment.

Luke was sufficiently concerned with history to contribute one of his own: 'to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished', as he says, 'in an orderly account'. But his concern was still a theological one, and his primary purpose (as we have said) to further the Gentile mission. So he quarries from the Old Testament the themes with which to paint his grand design of salvation-history. His triumphant sweep is as selective and optimistic as Marx's. His idealized picture of early Christian communities and their experiments in common ownership (Acts 2, 42-47; 4, 32-35) may seem to us Utopian. So does Marx's 'the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all' -- and as vulnerable to subsequent distortions and disappointments. But the fact that early enthusiasm was quenched by the bureaucrats and commissars that took over does not obscure or vitiate the original vision. Brother Elias could not extinguish the power of St. Francis' witness to Gospel poverty and simplicity: nor could the Emperor Constantine or Secretary Stalin destroy the vision, idealism and enthusiasm of the early pioneers. 3

Luke's special concern for the 'poor'/underclass and for the particular contribution of women is clearly reflected in the Magnificat. It is echoed in his Beatitudes (6, 20-22) where the Kingdom belongs to the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful and the persecuted. The comfortable, well-fed and successful are the targets of the terrible Woes (6, 24-26). The 'rich' are condemned not so much for their oppression of the 'poor', but for their complacency and reliance on material well-being and indifference to the sufferings of the underprivileged. Contemporary apocalyptic writers voiced the same criticism; for example 1 Enoch 94,8: "Woe to you rich, for you have trusted in your riches, and from your riches you shall depart; because you have not remembered the Most High in the days of your riches." 4 Equally reprehensible, the worldly and well-to-do had made their accommodation with heathenism; the poor, in contrast were those who had stayed loyal to their faith and 'accepted God's will as the only rule in their lives'.

There is nothing particularly original in the Magnificat's reversal of fortunes. Mary might be quoting Psalm 18 with the parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry: "For thou wilt save the afflicted people; but the haughty eyes thou wilt bring down." What is remarkable in Luke's Gospel is his particular dislike of wealth itself and the danger it brings in substituting worldly pleasure for lasting joy and the true satisfaction of 'Blessedness' (not to be equated, as in the Jerusalem Bible, with mere 'happiness' 5 ). He alone records the Parable of The Rich Man and "Lazarus (16, 19-31), for which there are parallels in Jewish and Egyptian sources, itself an excellent illustration of his earlier 'Woes'. The rich man is condemned for making the wrong choices: the poor man is consoled because he had been in his life incapable of making any choices at all. It is perhaps significant that he alone of all the characters in the parables is given a name, Lazarus, to denote that he has not lost that most precious of all possessions, his human identity.

Marx would no doubt have thoroughly approved the targeting of the story at the prosperous bourgeoisie of the day, the Sadducean party: their teachings, according to the historian Josephus, 'attracted none but the rich' and 'those of the greatest dignity'. In fact, Marx called England 'this land of Mammon': in his eyes, to worship Mammon was to make a fetish, a be-all-and-end-all of money-making; it was what Paul called 'covetousness which is idolatry' (Col. 3,5; Eph. 5,5). He would not have been surprised to find the cult of Mammon enshrined in its contemporary monuments, Canary Wharf and the Nat West Building at the heart of the City, and the nation of shoppers worshipping in their shining supermarket Cathedrals.

He was the first of many since (including our own RH Tawney) to see the close connection between Puritanism, Protestantism and money-making. "The cult of money", he says, "has its asceticism, its self-denial, its self-sacrifice -- the chase after the eternal treasure". "The hoarder makes a sacrifice of the lusts of the flesh to his gold-fetish." "The capitalist system is essentially the institutionalization of the idolatrous worship of Mammon". In. one of his early writings he finds an illustration of two particular properties of money in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens: (1) 'It is the visible divinity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposites, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings together impossibilities. (2) It is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples.'6

It is surely significant how largely money -- its possession, sharing and renunciation -- figures in Luke's account of the early Christian Church. It may be misleading to present the common life of those early Christians as a form of communism; but he does state twice (Acts 2,44; 4,32) that they held everything in common. It is the refusal of Annas and his wife Sapphira to share their profits from the sale of land with the rest of the community that leads to their appalling fate (Acts 5, 1-12). It is the inability of the Rich Official (Luke 18,18-30 = Mark 10, 17-31) to separate his quite sincere desire to lead a good and upright life from the demands of the Kingdom to forego the good in order to embrace the best. Peter's startled, incredulous reaction would sum up the sentiments of many of Luke's readers: is total renunciation of possessions required of a disciple? If so, is there any hope for the vast majority of us? Must wealth and possessions, private property, be synonymous with godlessness, a permanent barrier to complete surrender to God's will and the demands of the Kingdom?

Marx's manifesto required the bourgeoisie, the existing owner of property, to disgorge in favour of the nine-tenths who, in his day, owned none: the monopoly of a restricted class had first to be broken. But there was to be no embargo on private property itself -- only its restriction to a tenth of the population. The hungry would be filled with good things and the bourgeoisie sent, if not empty away, considerably slimmed down. Compared with Marx's, the Magnificat Manifesto, the common life of the early Christians, followed preeminently by the Franciscans and the dangerous stance of Lollards and Levellers, seem radical indeed. Small wonder, perhaps, that the clarion-call of the Magnificat, the absolutism of the Beatitudes and the harsh strictures on wealth and property have been castrated and 'spiritualized' by a Church which has historically been subjected to the Babylonish Captivity of a bourgeois Establishment!

A similar fate awaited the Communist Manifesto. Lenin thought little about 'feeding the hungry with good things'. For him, famine provided an opportunity to revolutionise the peasants. 'Psychologically', he wrote, 'this talk of feeding the starving is nothing but an expression of the saccharine-sweet sentimentality so characteristic of our intelligentsia.' Unfortunately, the rural proletariat showed themselves unwilling to be organised into the 'independent class party' that Lenin hoped for. Social welfare was on a par with religious faith which he called (sharpening Marx's celebrated critique) 'a kind of spiritual gin in which the slaves of capital drown their human shape and their claims to any decent life.' As Gorki noted, Lenin 'has no pity for the mass of the people... The working classes are to Lenin what minerals are to the metallurgist.' 7

Given the failure of the Church qua institution to live out the ideals of Magnificat; given also the relegation of the Marxist Manifesto and Mao' s Little Red Book to the library shelves, we may ask what is their true and lasting purpose today. Do they simply witness to the Vanity of Human Wishes and the fragility of a dream which still waits to be redeemed? Can they still inspire, renew and direct in the ways their composers perhaps intended? Or must we acknowledge sadly that Mary's song belongs more to liturgy and the poetical imagination than to the harsh world of realpolitik; and that Marx's call to revolutionary action must be silenced by the resounding failures of state socialism and the siren blandishments of market capitalism?

Their importance today, I would suggest, is two-fold. Firstly, they act as historical benchmarks, foundation-stones for the new order of justice and shalom. But as springboards rather than monuments. Secondly, they remind us of at least the possibility of change and renewal. Like Utopias, they whisper that things need not be as they are or always were; there is no law of Medes and the Persians implacably inscribed on the status quo -- things might actually be different. As Browning said,

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
-or a Utopia?

With the Magnificat, unlike the Manifesto, aesthetics have tended to overshadow the meaning of the story, which is more theological than historical. The beauty of the Birth-Narrative has overlaid the starkness of the message:

The news is conveyed to those who most need it -- illiterate peasants

The medium of the message is an unmarried mother, a disadvantaged, second-class citizen

The scandal at the end of the story, a criminal's death, is reflected in the scandal at the beginning

Poverty and rejection mark Jesus' ministry from the outset

Like the Beatitudes, it looks for a radical overturning of the world's priorities

Happiness and fulfilment are not to be measured by success, nor is power by status, privilege and social acceptance

It presents a basic text for Liberation Theology and as such is appropriately sung by a woman

"Christianity, it is said, brought hope and consolation to the slaves of the Roman empire", writes AJP Taylor. "Marxism did much the same for the wage slaves of capitalism and indeed went one better. They did not need to wait for the next world. The Communist Manifesto assured them that they would win in this one. 8

In fact, the Magnificat is very much concerned with this life. It celebrates life as a gift: the supreme gift of new, liberated life. It is a prayer of gratitude and an invitation to participate in eschatological joy: the future belongs to the hungry and exploited. As all life is gift (Blake's 'everything that lives is holy'), so is the gift of every child. All babies are special, but this one is Special with a capital 'S'. There has been an intimation of this -- a clear signal which we know as Annunciation. So this prayer is no isolated event. It emerges out of a background of oppression and messianic hope. Like that other inflammatory document, the Book of Revelation, addressed to a hard-pressed community, wrestling with enemies without and schisms within, it celebrates the imminence of a "New Heaven and a New Earth". As the Jewish people looked back to Exodus and their experience of Liberation, so Mary sees in the child's birth a clear sign that God still keeps his promises and the faith of his people is justified.

Nor is the content of the prayer confined to this event or Mary's personal situation: she acts as a mouthpiece, representing all Jewish mothers and her whole oppressed people, as the Psalmists did before her. Like Luke's other Canticles, the Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis, the Magnificat is a mosaic of Old Testament texts. She echoes the words of Leah: 'For all women will call me blessed' (Gen. 30, 13). Particularity (her pregnancy) is a foretaste of universality ('throughout all generations'). It is as if the griefs of all the ages, the pent-up yearnings for a reversal of the people's fortunes, pour forth in a paean of praise. This child is not just to be a personal blessing to her; he will put the Herods and Commissars in their place. In this poem the personal is political, and its reverberations are structural as well as spiritual. In the words of Fred Kaan's hymn:

Sing we a song of high revolt...
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. 9
In the end, the value of the Magnificat is, like the person of Mary herself, largely symbolic. It acts as a hinge, linking the prophetic demands for justice (zedek) with Jesus , own Manifesto in Luke 4, where he sets out his plan of action and proclaims his own embodiment of 'The Kingdom'. Both represent 'good news to the poor' and both are firmly based on Old Testament models. The Magnificat represents the cry of the oppressed for some reversal of their historical predicament: a revival of the prophets' attack on the status quo where all the odds are stacked against the' anawim' or underclass.

Like Marx's Manifesto it seems to us a little unreal, Utopian or Atopian, in that its vision is not rooted in any visible reality. Like Rabbi Menahem we look out and mutter: "What I see is no renewal". It isn't our experience that hunger -- even the hunger for truth, meaning, some sense of self-worth -- is alleviated in today's world; if anything, the reverse. We don't find the power-hungry disabused of their illusions of grandeur. As the gap between rich and poor grows wider (between employed and unemployed, North and South, etc.), the only 'emptiness' we perceive in the affluent is the vacuum left by a loss of purpose and direction, the dissatisfactions of limitless acquisitiveness, a pathetic whimper of discontent: 'Surely there must be something more -- a better song to sing?'

There is -- and its name is Magnificat. We may feel we are singing it like those exiles and aliens by the water of Babylon, 'singing the Lord's song in a strange land'. The culture of grab and greed may not give much breathing-space for dreams of daily bread for all. But it is still better to light this particular candle than to curse the darkness: we need our dreams and our Utopias. As the German liberation theologian and peace-worker, Dorothee Soelle, writes:

"Perhaps the mild cynicism of our culture is the best deterrent against this ability to believe and imagine, this loving and acting that seeks more in life than we already have. Nevertheless, the deterrent will not function for everyone and certainly not forever. There is something ineradicable about faith, hope and love. One may criticise the anthropology of previous socialism for being too optimistic. However, the cynical anthropology of real existing capitalism is unbearable for the spiritually gifted. Present reality is not everything! A transcendence stirs within us that cannot be satisfied. Even an economically stable capitalism will not smother this stirring. For God wants to believe in us, to hope in us, and to become one with us in love." 10

Graham Dowell, author of Enjoying the World, is a non-stipendiary minister in Shropshire.


1. Some attribute the hymn to Elizabeth, though the weight of MSS is heavily against this, Its origin is obscure; if Luke composed it (he alone records it), it doesn't bear many marks of his style. Probably, following RE Brown and CF Evans, we should place its origin in 'a Jewish Christian community of the Anawim or Poor Ones'. (TPI Commentary, SCM, 1990, p.173.)

2. In their Preface to the German edition of 1872, Marx and Engels assert it was commissioned by the Communist League at its London Congress in 1847, A.J.P. Taylor comment that 'the Communist League was itself the creation, more or less imaginary, of Marx and Engels', See his Penguin Ed. of the Manifesto, 1967, Note 1, p.123.

3. This is probably unfair to the Papacy and the successors of Francis who while acknowledging the originality and prophetic quality of the Franciscan movement, could not call themselves 'Franciscans'. If the Poverello's Manifesto was his Rule (with the Canticle of the Sun?), who were its true inheritors. No, surely, the Fraticelli, who rejected the compromises of Rome and soon became a fanatical and ferocious rump; but those like St. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon and those who have tried to absorb the spirit of Francis and live out his version of 'Justice, Peace and the Integrity of all Creation'.

4. See CF Evans, TPI Commentary, p.333.

5. But not, thankfully, in RSV or NEB, CF Evans comments that the word 'makarios' 'was originally in Greek applied to the gods, whose life was untroubled by care and death, and then to men (sic) in so far as they could share that life' (op, cit. p.328).

6. See his Early Writings, New York Vintage Books, 1975, p/b ed. p.377. See also Jose Miranda, Marx Against the Marxists, SCM, 1978, esp, Ch. 8, 'The Gospel Roots of Marx's Thought', Miranda believes, unfashionably, that at the height of his maturity Marx was a Christian and believed in God. But he also believes that the interpretation of Christianity as a religion -- the re-absorption of Christianity by the framework of religion -- has been 'the most radical falsification ever perpetrated in history' (ib.pp,224,262),

7. For Lenin's attitude towards the lumpen-peasantry see his Proletariat and Peasantry, Collected Works Vol. 7, p,158. 'Critics of Lenin are entitled to say that in the long run his principle of the centralised party and its 'vanguard' role meant that his revolution could no longer be described in the Marxist categories, and amounted to the substitution for the old regime of the rule not of the working class but of a political and bureaucratic elite,' (Robert Conquest, Lenin, Fontana, 1972, p.124).

8. Op. cit. Introduction p, 36.

9. 100 Hymns for Today, No. 86.

10. On Earth as in Heaven, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, p.64,


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