This past Tuesday, August 14, was a day of commemoration for Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who was added to the Episcopal calendar of saints in 1991 as a martyr for the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Daniels, a seminarian, was murdered in 1965 while shielding a young woman from an enraged, racist gunman in Selma, Alabama.
It is worth learning more about his brief, but meaningful, life. One of the things I learned is that his faith was deepened and his call to the priesthood confirmed by hearing the words of the Magnificat during evening services. These are words uttered by Mary nearly 2,000 years ago with an air of certainty after what was surely a time of confusion upon hearing that she would bear the Son of God and that her elderly cousin Elizabeth would also have a child. That these ancient words would inform the faith of a 20th century martyr confirms for me the value of a liturgy that allows the repetition of words to more fully enter our being and drive our faith.
Daniels wrote of his work in Selma: “The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself.” And, “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me.”
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations. He hath showed strength with his arm, he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Mary begins her song of praise in amazement that God has chosen her. That all generations will call her blessed is not a boast, but an acceptance of God’s faith in her. She realizes that she has been magnified by God’s work through her and she then turns her attention beyond herself and names the ways God works in the world. There are many translations of the Magnficat of course, but I particularly like this one from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. To scatter those whose greatness is only in the imagination of their own hearts helps humanize Mary for me. She was surely rolling her eyes a bit as she thought about such people.
Jonathan Daniels heard these words again and again and felt that God could work through him also. Listen and wonder in your heart how God might work through you.