This paper was originally used as part of a Webinar by the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
A recording of this and other presentations is available at Short Metre HSGBI
I ought to begin by clarifying something. When someone begins with the words ‘we all know’, someone usually doesn’t. So, for the sake of clarity, though not everyone would agree, I am taking Biblical prophecy as pointing people back to God. It offers hope; but also, judgment. And it can be found in both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament.
It's not primarily about predicting the future, though sometimes prophets say, ‘if you do this, that will happen to you’!
I don’t believe that prophecy is just something past. Hence the opening words of one of my hymns:
God still needs prophets who will rage,
who speak God's words amid despair,
to this and every nation;
It goes on:
God still needs prophets who will hold
a mirror to our blindness,
May we be prophets through our words
and in our hands of healing,
that others might see Christ in us
while Christ to us revealing.
But where does The Magnificat fit in with this? Don Saliers said that hymns, enable us ‘to say some things that we do not truly think we believe until we sing them’. Singing scripture does not just make a pretty noise, it can embed belief in us, change us and transform belief into action. It can motivate us for good.
So let us look at some hymns that have started with the Magnificat. My area of study is hymnody so I won’t address Chants.
‘Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord’ is not the most political, nor the most prophetic hymn I’ve ever sung. Like most of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymns it is as near perfect as a hymn can be. So why does it need to be prophetic?
The title of the Magnificat is taken from the opening to the Song of Mary in a Latin translation – ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. Commentators suggest that the song is out of place in terms of the context of a young girl finding that she is pregnant and in the general flow of the gospel narrative. It is, however, very much in the Lukan voice which is later going to record Jesus announcing that he comes
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
And here in Mary’s song we have:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
The tense is Past, but this is what Jesus is going to do. It is timeless, an out of time context. Where God is, where love is active, this is as it is. So we are seeking to describe something transcending chronological time. These Love has done, is doing, will be doing…
The words are very much in the tradition of prophecy and, perhaps, apposite to the world in which we live today. The problem is that, within the church prophecy, as with much other scripture that is visceral, has been eviscerated. We sing the words in a way which does little to underline the prophetic nature of the original words. The person about whom we are singing will upset the religious and political equilibrium of the day and perhaps that of the whole world. My question is what do hymns do to address this?
To return to ‘Tell out my soul’ -
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
the hungry fed, the humble lifted high.
‘Powers and dominions lay their glory by’, hardly. It sounds as though the powers and dominions do this voluntarily. Patently they do not and neither does the scripture suggest that they do. Think COP26. So what of Fred Kaan’s, ‘Sing we a song of high revolt’. This is, perhaps, more promising, where ‘God [is] at war with human wrong’. This deity ‘the proud disowns, / brings down the mighty from their thrones’.
By him the poor are lifted up;
he satisfies with bread and cup the hungry ones of many lands;
the rich must go with empty hands.
The hymn becomes more difficult to sing as it progresses for we are bid ourselves to fight…
with him for what is just and right,
to sing and live Magnificat
in crowded street and council flat.
I expect there are laws against fighting for what is ‘just and right’ though perhaps they are being prepared in draft…but to sing this in church?
And one possible tune: TANNENBAUM. We know it better as The Red Flag (socialist in the UK; or O Christmas Tree); a not unintentional choice I would guess. But so many congregations are inherently conservative – small or large ‘C’ and, by implication may find this interpretation difficult, if not offensive. The text is well known but has gained little traction. Sometimes side-lined as the last verse referring to a ‘council-flat’ feels either anachronistic or offensive.
Brian Wren is more subtle in ‘Daughter Mary, saying yes to the angel's visitation’. The hymn continues:
As in heaven, so on earth,
God will work salvation,
as the child you bring to birth,
checks the wealthy, feeds the poor,
And verse 2 closes with the assertion that
God's new invitation
brings the outcasts to rebirth,
lifts the humble, shifts the proud,
The problem with this text is the unusual metre with only one tune, ROSEWOOD being offered in HymnQuest.
In John Bell’s ‘Sing out, my soul, sing with joy to the Lord’ verses 5 & 6 imply that the miracle of reparation is complete:
5 God forces rulers to forfeit the throne;
lifting the unloved, the lost and alone,
God shows that favour reserved for his own.
6 Those who are hungry, God fills with good things,
those who are rich into poverty brings;
pregnant with justice, my heart gladly sings.
What is being sung is of God who will fulfil Hebrew expectations of a Messiah who will bring justice and just desserts for all, good and bad. This is less prophecy, more anticipation of faithful hope for ‘God, who is faithful, has come to our aid’. Translated into a hymn it coalesces a future hope with our necessary incarnational partnership with Christ – for ‘my heart gladly sings!’
As a writer myself I am motivated to write when I don’t find hymns which I feel express scripture with the force invested in it.
The challenge is to write a text that does justice to the scripture, that does not see actions complete with no future hope, which enables us to enter into the process of salvation and which is still singable. Here are snippets from work in progress.
A topsy-turvy, upturned world
1 A topsy-turvy, upturned world,
where values are distorted,
the first is last and last is first
with everything contorted.
The rich are begging at the door
while ones they were despising
are given charge of Godly wealth,
in stature they are rising.
2 Magnificat has come to stay,
the proud have been extinguished;
the humble poor are lifted high,
their poverty relinquished.
The reign of God has come to pass
rebutting our world's choices,
each one that we would count as last
within this time rejoices.
3 And will we ever find a place
with pride and wealth rejected,
or will hypocrisy deny
our need to be accepted?
The choice is ours, the crisis dawns,
the time to make decisions,
to stand with God or walk alone
within this world's divisions.
Might we sing this on State occasions, or at the opening of Parliament?
At the heart of Jesus life and action are some very hard questions. In the Old Testament prophets underlined the sharpness of the distinction between justice and injustice. Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures called people to account and pointed them back to God. They were never afraid to criticise injustice, even if that put them in danger, or open to threat or ridicule.
In the wake of COP26 this next hymn, from a time of financial crisis in 2015, feels redolent of the world in which we live, or for which we hope and echoes Magnificat.
Upturned world, the bankers humbled
1 Upturned world, the bankers humbled,
politicians brought to book,
children show new ways of living,
heads will spin and turn to look.
Mary sang, exultant virgin,
birth would change her life and ours,
generations watch with wonder,
shaken like wealth's shining towers.
2 Love incarnate's gentle thunder
wakes the earth to truth and light,
hypocrites meet naked justice,
find no place in fear for flight.
Mary sings, when will we hear her:
revolution born of love,
heralding new dispensation,
cage the hawk and free the dove?
3 When the prison gates are broken,
when the poor can feast and dine,
then Magnificat is bringing
age of justice and new wine.
Wine of joy and celebration,
end of hunger, God is near,
time of endless new beginnings,
birth of Jesus, end of fear.
Finally to return more nearly to the original scripture:
Almighty God has done great things
1 Almighty God has done great things,
an angel proffers stunning news,
the news of human hope he brings,
her baby heaven and earth shall fuse;
and she will give her life for that,
O, Mary, sing magnificat.
2 A mother and her unborn child,
a man who ought to let her go
to save his face, stay undefiled,
as love and duty taunt and flow;
and Joseph will consider that
as Mary sings magnificat.
3 And all the greatness of a God,
distilled to love, sets captives free,
a single liberating Word:
those born in darkness now can see;
as human power considers that
let Mary sing Magnificat…