Mary’s Song and Missiology

Madonna and Christ Child with kings
Photo by Emrecan Algu00fcl on

Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t we just worship like the first Christians did?”  as if that will solve the worship styles debate.  After all, what is “right”?  Part of the problem is that there is a lot that we just don’t know.  We do know some.  The Didache was an early worship manual from the first or second century and gives us some information about baptism and communion.  And there are the torture records in which people were asked what they were doing in these meetings. Another good source of information is Luke’s gospel. 

Unlike the other three gospels, Luke’s gospel includes hymns that were contemporaneous to the writing of the gospel–approximately the 80s A.D. and probably sung in Christian communities. In addition to the Magnificat, Luke includes the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Simeon, and the Gloria, which is attributed to the angelic choir.  The Hallelujah comes much later in the theological drama.  The tunes they sang are unknown.

The source of the Magnificat is probably modeled on the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, sung when she gives thanks to God for her son Samuel, “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation” (1 Sam. 2:1). The similarities are apparent.

The song of Mary has been sung throughout the world, wherever the Bible has been read. The first Christians sang the words in everyday Greek from at least the time of the 80s.  The church later immortalized those words in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea, Dominum.  Et exultavit spiritus meus; in Deo salutari meo.”  “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,” according to the Herbert Howells’ setting. My Spanish-speaking staff would probably know this text as “Mi alma glorifica al Señor, y mi espíritu se regocija en Dios mi Salvador,” translated: “My soul gives glory to the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (my translation).

Musically, the Magnificat text has been a fertile ground for vocal and instrumental settings for several hundreds of years.  Composers have set the words to different musical scores to paint different musical pictures.  For example, J.S. Bach uses the double obbligato flutes in “Esurientes implevit bonis” (“and the rich he hath sent empty away”) to create a “ha ha” sort of effect.  Mary and Elizabeth are clearly mocking the powers of this world–a dangerous activity back in the day.  Rutter’s opening movement includes what sound like cha-cha effects because he received his inspiration by watching the Festival of the Virgin Mary in Mexico, which includes joyous parades and highly decorated statues of Mary. Arvo Pårt’s setting is pure introspective mysticism sung by an a capella choir.  The United Methodist Hymnal has three settings—one being the better known, “Tell out my soul the greatness of God’s name…”  Open your hymnal and have a look. 

The writer of Luke’s gospel identifies Mary as the downtrodden and definitely lower on the socioeconomic scale.  Scholars estimate that in the first century the population consisted of 3 percent ultra-wealthy and 90 percent the very poor.1  Put another way, according to another analysis, about 55 percent of the population at any time did not know if they would have food from day to day.2  Mary was in an arranged marriage situation and, clearly, the pressure in those situations is not to screw up the betrothal arrangement for either her family or herself.  Her family’s social standing was on the line.  An unwed pregnancy could mean she would be treated as damaged goods for the rest of her life. Then this angel shows up one day with a message that will upset the apple cart for a lot of people.

Mary was probably quite aware of the history of her people’s oppression.  For example, the Seleucids 200 years before Christ were despots.  The Book of Maccabees contains an illustrative example of a woman who is forced to watch the torture and slow death of each of her sons unless she rejects Judaism by eating pork. (2 Macc. 1:1–42) The very vivid descriptions of the torture would make the Saudi Secret Police, the Nazi S.S., and the Gulags in the Soviet Union in more recent times green with envy.  It was into this history that the Christ Child was born.

The Magnificat text is many things: poem, hymn, and prayer.  Dr. Eileen Guenther describes the text as the greatest social justice text of all time and would say that its use is not restricted to Advent.  Think of the paraphrase in Hal Hopson’s setting, “My heart will sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.”3

If Mary was among the most powerless because of her gender and lack of agency, who do you think are the powerless and poor in our own time? Those who keep the stats of income and wealth, poverty and weakness would probably find the question of who is poor and who is not is a bit along the lines of “it depends.”  But building God’s kingdom is not solely about spending money on projects. It is about building a relationship with other people who may not return the favor or give more than a thank you. But we do it anyway. Building the kingdom means living out the words of the Southern hymn “If I Can Help Somebody”: “If I can help somebody as I pass along … If I can cheer somebody with a word or song … If I can bring back beauty to a world … if I can show somebody that they are travelin’ wrong, then my living shall not be in vain.”

What would happen if our missiological activities in church focused on turning the world upside down in ways the Magnificat speaks of? 

It could mean walking in the Pride parade to show the hundreds of thousands of people on the route that God loves them—full stop. A turn-the-world-upside-down missiology could include partnering with community activists to reduce gun violence prevention and writing letters to elected representatives. It could mean developing a food preparation ministry that gathers wasted food from places like grocery stores and then turns it into free meals.  Spending some time chopping vegetables in a kitchen or picking up prepared food in the van and delivering the meals may be the best part of your week. A turn-the-world-upside-down activity might look like providing after-school tutoring for students or parenting classes for new parents.  

Listen to the various settings of the Magnificat text from Gregorian chant to the present. Embrace the fire of God’s justice. Find a way to help bring God’s justice to the Earth every week.  It is the work that God would have us do.

1. Mark Allen Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary and Theological Survey. (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2009), 41.

2. Carla Swafford Works, The Least of These: Paul and the Marginalized. (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmanns, Publishing Company, 2020), 18–19.  She summarizes the work of Steven J. Friesen and Bruce Longenecker’s attempts to quantify poverty in the first-century Roman Empire.

3. Gary Daigle, Rory Coony, Theresa Donohoo,  “Canticle of the Turning” Tune:  Star of County Down, setting by Hal H. Hopson (Fenton:  MorningStar Music Publishers).

 4. A. Bazel Androzzo (pseudonym for Alma Irene Thompson), “If I Can Help Somebody”, Boosey and Hawkes, 1958. https://hymnary-org/text/if_I_can_help_somebody.

Kerm Towler

Kerm Towler is a master of divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He thanks Dr. Carla Works for the historical information from her books and lectures and Dr. Eileen Guenther who taught the Magnificat in every sacred music class. His other great interests are music and South Africa—together and separately.

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