One of my favourite Christmas Choral pieces is “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Sent,” a Basque Folk Carol translated into English by Sabine Baring-Gould. While it’s not extremely well known, many have sung it to different arrangements. The one I like is an a capella lilting version sung by the King’s College Cambridge Choir. The carol begins:
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
With wings as drifted snow, and eyes as ﬂame;
‘All hail,’ was said, ‘thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favoured lady,’ Gloria!
‘For known a blessèd Mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honour thee,
Thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold.
Most highly favoured lady,’ Gloria!
I love these folk tunes that have made it into our choral Christmas repertoire. I listen to this arrangement of the Basque carol many times every Christmas.
In part what I like about these folk carols is that they are easily sung and in a very real way come from the people. In other words, they weren’t written by church choral scholars for a high Roman Catholic mass or other choral scholars in whatever denomination. These folk carols were based on tunes that were sung by the people. No doubt the Basque individual who wrote the lyrics did so influenced by the Biblical texts to do with Mary, and modern music scholars even trace the words to a number of Gregorian Chants. Even so, it’s about music that is accessible to all people.
These folk carols are also available to us. We need these songs for inspiration and hope. That was the message of Mary’s Song, a folk carol, that we call the Magnificat. Mary sang the song as a song of God’s intention for a radical reversal of blessing in the world. The arrogant who flaunt their wealth or their power are pulled down and the lowly, the down-trodden and taken-advantage are lifted up.
Mary’s song is not the first such song in the Biblical record. The Psalms are early songs of God’s presence and are canticles of blessing, lament, celebration and sorrow. Besides the Psalms, there is the Song of Hannah, Myriam’s Song, Moses’ song in Deuteronomy, a Song of David in 1 Chronicles, the Song of Solomon, songs of peace and promise in Isaiah, and many others here and there. Biblical Canticles are songs that proclaim a message of love, hope, joy, new life, promise, or reversal.
Mary’s Song most likely was based on Hannah’s Song in Samuel. Hannah was unable to have children, was bereft and sat in the Temple, sobbing, and praying. The Temple priest, Eli, though, thought she was drunk because of the festival happening in Jerusalem; he was about to ask her to leave when she told him that she was praying. She said that if God gave her a son, she would bring him to the Temple and dedicate him to God’s service. Thus, Samuel came into being, a prophet and a priest. Because of God’s promise, Hannah sang her Magnificat!
Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred for proclaiming justice and peace, compared Mary to the poor and powerless in his community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian during the 2nd World War who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.” At times in history, some countries banned the singing of the Magnificat.
The Washington Post published an article 2 years ago about Mary’s Magnificat. By the way, the word Magnificat is from the Latin word that means “glorify” or “magnify.” While the poetry is about glorifying God, it is about God’s magnificent and revolutionary Kin-Dom of peace, equality, justice, compassion and love. The Washington Post article pointed to how, for many Protestants including evangelicals, Mary’s Magnificat is problematic… partly as a result of the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on Mary and partly because the Magnificat is a political declaration.
However, it isn’t JUST a political or economic revolutionary song; it speaks volumes that God is the God who brings new communities of hope to life in the world.
Music is a powerful tool for conveying revolutionary ideas. I remember a minister somewhere, and I don’t remember when or where this was, suggesting that once a month instead of preaching a sermon, we sing. This minister said that singing is a powerful act of resistance: to an injustice, to feeling blue and down, to feeling uncertain and confused, to feeling ill, to feeling the need to build ourselves up again. We resist that which tears something down when we sing. This year of COVID, we wanted to sing on Thursday nights—our traditional choir practice night—as an act of resistance to fear and despair at what we were facing.
How many people can we cite who wrote songs of resistance and how often do we turn to music to lift us up, empower us to change, or give us courage in the face of injustice. I think of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Josh White, Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, Wynton Marsalis; how about JS Bach or Beethoven or Allegri? How about spirituals and Gospel music? How about the hymns we sing on Sunday or in the shower or Thursday nights? How about the music we listen to that inspires? Think of those in E. Germany singing every Monday night at a church that helped accelerate the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall in 1989; the East German police—the Stasi—didn’t know what to do with singing. Think of the impact of the Civil Rights song, “We Shall Overcome” or a spiritual sung by Mahalia Jackson.
Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah in the back-story Luke tells leading up to Jesus’ birth, sang. What is remarkable about Mary’s song is that the verbs are in the past tense. You scattered the proud, you pulled down princes—all addressed to God—you filled the poor, you raised the lowly, you sent the arrogant away… Mary, I think, realized that she had been drawn into a relationship with God, the One who filled, scattered, pulled, raised, sent. It’s not about things having been completed, but about Mary’s inclusion in fulfilling these things promised. And it is about us drawn into God’s compassionate activity in the world.
When WE sing, we are drawn into the story of God’s dramatic presence in the world and called to work for hope, peace, love and joy. Song draws us in as participants in God’s gift of wholeness. And while songs of joy are wonderful, it can also be the blues we need to sing or a lament that frees us to experience God’s gift. We are drawn into the reality of that which we are singing about… whether we think we can sing or not!
So, sing boldly as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to say! Sing as if your life depends on it, or the life of the world—for it does. Think of the breath infused in the song! The Spirit! Sing and know joy and the promise of a new beginning! Joy, hope, love and peace are why we sing a lot in this church, especially this year! Peace and joy to all. Amen.