Sunday, December 16, 2007
The Unexpected Birth: A Meditation on the Magnificat
This is the meditation I wrote for someone else to read before our Magnificat this morning. She did a wonderful job, and I do think it set up the cantata well...
“The Unexpected Birth”
Luke 1:26-38; 47-55
December 16, 2007
Third Sunday in Advent
The work you are about to hear is a meditation on some of the best-known Biblical texts, concerning the miraculous pregnancy of the Virgin Mary. In the passage that was just read, the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that the child who will be born will be “the Son of the Most High God,” and will sit on the throne of his ancestor, King David. In the passage we read together as the Psalter, from which most of the words of the cantata are drawn, Mary sings a song of praise to God, for God’s marvelous and saving work in her own life and the lives of the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. Mary praises God for the unexpected birth she is awaiting. the birth of the Messiah.
Our hymnal and the radio are filled with sweetly melodic meditations upon the first of these passages, but rarely do we hear Christmas carols based on the Magnificat. This is probably because the Magnificat is so unabashedly political in its content, and we have, for the most part, tamed Christmas, playing down its political implications. We have made Christmas into a celebration that is largely about home and family and beauty and joy. The Magnificat, on the other hand, is about God’s terrifying power, toppling the powerful from their places of privilege, and elevating the poorest, the most powerless, to realms of unimaginable honor.
Vaughan Williams’ music is appropriate to the radical message of Mary’s words. With the flute playing the part of the Holy Spirit, and the women’s chorus proclaiming the words of God’s messengers, the ensemble will not be singing sweet melodies in the Magnificat, but rather soaring and searing proclamations of God’s salvation, which always turns the world upside down.
Several times during the Magnificat you will hear the music strain back and forth between major and minor chords. In the major chords we hear words like, “Hail! Full of grace!” reminding us of the glory of God’s work. In the minor chords we are reminded that grace is costly… the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit is both an experience of ecstasy and one of terror. God’s action in her life is glorious. But it will also pierce her heart with devastating sorrow. Hear now the word of God, proclaimed in word and song, by voice and instrument...
Image: "Annunciation II" by Linda Sutton