December 19: “Canticle of the Turning”

By the Rev. Victoria Larson
Preaching Texts: the RCL’s texts for Advent 4C

In my opinion, we do not talk often enough about Gráinne O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Máille). She is a fierce figure in Irish history who deserves far more recognition than she’s been given. She was incredibly determined, a renowned warrior, and a skilled leader.

She also happened to be a pirate, but if you can overlook that, she really is quite a role model.

One of my favorite stories about Gráinne goes like this: once, she sailed up to a castle on the eastern coast of Ireland, intending to be fed and housed by the lord who lived there as a pleasant break from pirating. She walked all the way up to the stony walls, only to learn that the lord refused to open his gates to her. She turned on her heel, walked back to the beach, kidnapped the grandson of the lord who was playing there, and promptly set sail for the other side of Ireland.

The lord had to traipse right across the country to retrieve his heir, and Gráinne would not give him back until the lord promised to never close the castle gates at dinner and to always set a place for unexpected guests.

As of a few years ago, Howth Castle was still setting a place for Gráinne O’Malley, who died around 1603. 

“Who has better songs of uprising than the Irish?” asks liturgical musician Rory Cooney, who wrote this week’s song, “The Canticle of the Turning.” He channels his homeland’s spirit into the song, using the tune of an Irish traditional Song (“The Star of the County Down”) as the framework for his paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat.

Mary is another woman whose badassery we don’t talk about nearly enough, though I hope this is beginning to change. Tradition has consigned to her the role of the “meek and mild” Virgin, as if we haven’t got a scriptural record of her singing a song of political disruption, social revolution, and cosmic table-turning.

Mary’s song is offered as the psalm in today’s set of lectionary texts, and it is also Mary’s response to what Elizabeth says to her in the gospel (though not included in the gospel reading). It’s helpful to recall the context of Elizabeth’s exclamation: her own husband, the high priest Zechariah, is currently going around without use of his voice because an angel struck him silent when he questioned the good news that the angel brought. Mary is Zechariah’s foil: without any formal theological training, she bested the older, wiser high priest in her full acceptance of the angel’s message and her consent to her role in it: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Interestingly, Mary is given no more words in the scriptural narrative until this moment with Elizabeth, when she bursts forth in a full-throated melody that resonates with Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel and Miriam’s prophetic descants on the shores of the Red Sea. (Zechariah, too, will sing once he names his son John and his voice returns.) Mary’s song is thick with prophetic utterance about the nature of God’s justice. It isn’t meek. It’s decidedly not mild. It is a strident proclamation of what God has already accomplished (most of the verbs of the song are in past tense), and is now doing. Mary sings of a God who chooses to be magnified through her own soul, the soul of one whom the world might hold of no account.

Singing Mary’s song on this last Sunday of Advent, we look backwards with her at all that God has already done, all the places where God has already revealed Godself, and anticipate all that God will soon accomplish. In this Advent season, we have been singing walking songs together as we journey toward and among apocalypses and revelations of God’s work in this world. Our songs have been full of reminders that creation is still groaning in labor pains, but at the end of this week, our Christian timekeeping will once again bring us into the story of the time when “she who is in labor has brought forth,” bringing the Savior of the world to life. Not-yet is collapsing into already, and in the midst of it all, Mary offers us an anchor: a witness to what God has already done, and can therefore be depended upon to do.

Linnéa notes that in Cooney’s paraphrase of the Magnificat, “The Canticle of the Turning,” “the tune begs to be sung at a quick tempo, even though the words come thick and fast: tyrants torn from their thrones, deliverance from the conqueror’s crushing grasp, the crushing of the spear and rod, the burning fires of justice.” The effortless speed and lyrical density of the song remind us that the very choice to live in Advent hope is an act of brinkmanship that rivals Mary’s own. In this last week of the season, there is no better time to enjoy the adrenaline rush of irrational faith, and Elizabeth’s blessing for Mary becomes ours too: “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Ready or not, the Son of Mary is coming. Raise the gates of your heart. Set the table. Make sure his place is ready. He offers us grace pirated from his own righteousness, and has already raided the coffers of death. He is coming soon, and like some 16th century Irish pirates I’ve heard about, he simply will not be shut out.  

Published by Victoria

Victoria was born, bred, and lightly sauteed in southeastern Pennsylvania. She's studied theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (M.Div.) and Yale Divinity School (S.T.M.). She has served congregations in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania over the past six years. She is currently on leave from call, adventuring across the United States in an RV--or, as she prefers to call it, "land boating."

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