December 19: “Canticle of the Turning”

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 

and lifted up the lowly; 

God has filled the hungry with good things, 

and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:52-53

Finally, it’s here: the day we hear Mary sing her song! Our Advent songs of liberation, justice, hope, and peace culminate in Mary’s words as her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptizer, recognizes the child in Mary’s womb. 

Mary is part of a long tradition of women singing about God’s justice. In the Hebrew Bible, music and poetry are two expressions of the gift of prophecy, and from this perspective, Mary herself can be understood as a prophet. Her words are not so different from those of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, in 1 Samuel 2, and they resonate with the song of Miriam as she dances on the shores of the Red Sea in Exodus 15. Mary’s song of justice proclaims the hope on the horizon as she prepares to give birth to her child: the proud are scattered, the lowly are lifted, the powerful are overthrown, the hungry are filled, the rich are sent away empty. 

Liturgical musician Rory Cooney paraphrased the Magnificat when writing “Canticle of the Turning,” bringing its lines into sharper relief with extra-vivid language for its biblical imagery. Tyrants are torn from their thrones, the conqueror’s grasp crushes, and Mary wipes away tears. Because Cooney wrote the hymn for the Year C Advent lectionary, he chose to use the imagery of turning to remind congregations of John the Baptist’s Advent call to repent (literally, to turn around). 

Cooney chose to set his text to “Star of the County Down,” an Irish folk song. He writes, “I decided that I wanted to use music that suggested the revolutionary spirit of the canticle, that cosmic tables are being turned over, as it were. And who has better songs of uprising than the Irish?” He refers to the tune as “a self-teaching melody” with plenty of internal repetition. It’s a tune that begs to be sung at a quick tempo, even though the verses and refrain are textually dense. “The stanzas even get out of hand with syllables flying out of control by differing from stanza to stanza,” comments Paul Westermeyer in the Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. I wonder if the challenge of singing this mouthful of a text is by design. If not, the challenge still fits: God’s transforming justice is coming thick and fast, whether we’re ready for it or not. It is full of urgency, not decorum. 

Christmas is just a few days away. All of our waiting, longing, and preparation has come down to this. Whether we’re ready or not, the world is about to turn. 

Bulletin version: “Canticle of the Turning” is a contemporary paraphrase of Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-55, which echo earlier prophetic songs from the Hebrew Bible. The hymn uses an Irish folk song for an upbeat, lively setting of Mary’s song, full of hope and determination. Christmas is right around the corner, and whether we’re ready for it or not, the world is about to turn.

Resources: Learn more about “Canticle of the Turning” from composer Rory Cooney himself at http://rorycooney.blogspot.com/2014/08/songstories-36-canticle-of-turning-gia.html and in Paul Westermeyer’s Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2010).

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