A blinding light, a rush of wings, an announcement: you have been chosen by God to bear his son. After the angel left, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth and told her what had happened in a passage we now call the Magnificat. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t tell us if this was a spontaneous utterance or if Mary had been planning it ahead of time, but I like to imagine that she’d been thinking about it for a while, saying the words over and over, trying to understand what it meant to carry the incarnate God in her very body. I like to imagine that she remembered these words, that they came back to her not only throughout her pregnancy but through Jesus’ entire life. Perhaps she whispered them again as she stood at the foot of the cross.
When I realized I would be pregnant this Christmas — a first, as both of my other children were born in the fall — I started planning to dance a setting of the Magnificat during the Christmas season. It’s a simple choreography that I’ve danced several times, and I’ve always wanted to dance the piece while expecting.
I’ve danced practically my entire life, training first in classical ballet and later branching out into modern and jazz and anything else I could find. I’ve also been privileged to be a longtime member of a liturgical dance choir at my church that incorporates classical ballet and other dance styles into worship. Being a part of the dance choir has given me a different understanding of dance, a different focus. When dance is used in a sacred context, as an expression of worship, it pulls some of the focus off the dancer — instead of being so much about the human body, it becomes an act of devotion. I believe that it’s this focus, in part, that’s allowed me to keep dancing throughout the various stages of my life, from adolescence to adulthood and through three pregnancies and four years of nursing.
I feel like I understand things when I dance. I spend so much time living in my head, but there’s a kinetic understanding in movement I don’t have otherwise, particularly around subjects related to my faith. Asked to explain concepts like worship, or salvation, and I stumble — bogged down in words, in the layers of gray matter in my head. But when I dance, I feel like I understand. I can’t explain worship, but I can worship when I dance.
Over the years I’ve danced many roles, and many settings of Biblical stories. I’ve danced as Mary, as the angel; in a more modern choreography, I’ve even been the stable. Maybe dancing the role of Mary while pregnant myself would allow me a bit of a visceral glimpse into the meaning and mystery of the incarnation.
I love that God chose to enter the world he created by being born as a human baby, to a young girl in a culture where power lay only with men. And I wonder about Mary, about her part in this transformative event we celebrate every December. I’ve heard the story of the annunciation more times than I can count, and yet it never fails to move me. Terrified though she must have been — and I try to imagine an angel appearing before me, as I’m vacuuming or emptying the dishwasher — Mary nevertheless said “yes.” She could have said “no,” I firmly believe, and God would have found another woman, another way. But standing on that precipice where her life was about to change in ways she couldn’t even conceive, Mary said yes. And the entire course of human history was changed through the choice that she made.
I love that when Mary hears the angel’s message she says yes, categorically. Given what the angel was asking I could see how she might try to throw in a few qualifiers — I’ll have the baby, but Joseph still has to marry me and everyone has to believe my story. And oh yeah, I want an easy pregnancy, an uncomplicated delivery, and no problems nursing. And no stretch marks. And no colic. Then again, I’m coming at the story from the perspective of a third pregnancy; I know a bit more of what lies in store.
But Mary just said yes.
I can’t imagine carrying the divine within my womb; I can barely believe the miracle that is pregnancy. Did Mary awaken in the middle of the night as she neared full term, gritting her teeth and saying “If you kick my ribs one more time . . . ?” And then what? “Oh, wait. You’re God? Never mind, carry on”?
Popular sentiment portrays Mary as meek and mild, but I’ve never been fully convinced. Luke tells us that on the night of Jesus’ birth, as shepherds came to visit the new baby, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I can’t help but wonder, in an account so sparse in detail, why Luke chose to include this observation — maybe Mary wasn’t so much mild as she was resilient, even stubborn; maybe Luke wanted us to know that Mary had encountered something so life-changing even she couldn’t find words big enough to hold it.
As the date of the piece draws near I practice the dance in my living room while my children “help,” my daughter’s eyes flicking from the video of me dancing the piece five years ago to the real me dancing in the living room now. I stop when I realize she looks worried, ask her what’s on her mind.
“Are you going to try on that dress to see if it fits?” she asks bluntly, her eyes taking in the real, pregnant me, and the videotaped, nonpregnant me. I laugh and hug her, assure her that I know I won’t fit into the dress I’m wearing on the screen, I’ve made plans to wear something else. But her question resonates down to my slowly-chilling feet: I’m in my third trimester, I’m the size of a planet. I’ve danced all the way through pregnancy, but I’ve never performed this far along. At the moment, I’m not exactly light on my feet.
But I want to dance this piece, now. This is what happens when we bear children, and I close my eyes and picture Mary, swollen and sore, literally great with child. I want to imagine I’m walking in her footsteps, if only for a few moments. And maybe I will catch a flicker of understanding, a glimpse of what the miracle of Christmas really means.
To watch a clip of Elrena dancing the Magnificat, click here.
3 replies on “Magnificat”
Beautiful, Elrena! I’ve been waiting for this column, and I absolutely love it. Love the dancing clip, too! :)
Elrena, that was so beautiful and moving. The writing and dancing both.
Great column, Elrena. I was pregnant over Christmas twice–the first time, huge (M was born three days later) and the second time, just barely. Both times I remember that the words of the magnificat really made some kind of sense to me in that visceral way you describe: something was happening that I couldn’t quite fathom, but that would be life-changing.