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By Colin Gibson in All Sorts

Mary’s Magnificat is an ‘alternative truth’, a dream of what might be

We have got used to hearing about the alternative truth, ever since Donald Trump’s spokesman, flying in the face of photographic evidence, declared that Trump’s inauguration parade was larger than Obama’s had been. Challenged by reporters, he brazenly declared that President Trump was much more popular than the President he had succeeded: and that this was the ‘alternative truth’ to what was being shown on the media (the truth thousands of Americans had been shown by the news channels).
Now it is easy to jump to condemn such false claims (lies was the word we once used), because don’t we all know that the truth is the truth? Anything else is not the truth. But experience tells us it is not as simple as that, that the world we live in is not a black and white, true or false one.

Yes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but what about fiction, the creative narrative we call a novel? Or that very modern cross-over between historical fact and invention, the docu-drama? And when it comes to the truth about ourselves or any other human, what can be said other than that we all have both a public appearance, a persona, and an inner, private life we share with almost no-one—sometimes not even with ourselves! And Shakespeare has reminded us that on the stage of life we play many roles in our dealings with others, as well as during our progression through the ‘seven ages’ of human life.
What are we to make of this business of truth and untruth and their alternative? I was recently struck by a saying Rod Mitchell threw up on the screen during a service of worship. ‘Our actions show what we are; our words show what we dream we might be.’ And it is helpful to bring this thought to that magnificent poem Luke puts into the mouth of Mary, when she shares the news of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth, wife of the temple priest Zechariah, and Elizabeth tells her that her own baby (the future John the Baptist) has moved within her womb.
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid.
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed Because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name,
And his mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
We can be sure that the real Mary never said anything as eloquent as that! An illiterate woman in a small country village, such language would have been beyond her, and whoever wrote it down on the spot, if she did say it? (Could you recall what you said when you first fell pregnant?) In fact, almost all the Magnificat is a direct transplant from the equivalent speech of Hannah, mother of Samuel, in the Old Testament. As Fred Kaan, famous Dutch-born hymnwriter and United Reformed Church minister, has said, ‘If there had been some Zealot copyright lawyer around at the time he could have taken her to court for committing plagiarism. Almost all her song is quotation from the Old Testament. She makes herself a mouthpiece of the whole people of God. There are only two original lines in the Magnificat, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ and ‘Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.’ And Mary’s own words, as distinct from those she ‘recalls’ and quotes are future-orientated—she ‘remembers forward.’ How could it be otherwise? She was pregnant, for God’s sake!’
No, Mary’s Magnificat, as it has come to be called, is an ‘alternative truth’, a dream of what might be, put into her mouth by Luke, as ancient historians were accustomed to do—with no imputation that such words were a ‘lie’. They have gone on to inspire generations of social activists and political reformers and philosophers and religious mystics; they have sustained the suffering poor, persecuted religious minorities, so-called heretics, and the simple faith of millions, that God is good and merciful beyond all human measurements of goodness and mercy. As we draw closer to Christmas and the fondly remembered birth of Mary’s baby, may we feel able to join in the words of Mary’s ecstasy of joy, making them our truth for today.
Colin Gibson