Precentor - Rev Canon Gilly Myers
I am not sure that community singing in this country is what it used to be, but look to other cultures around the world and we can get caught up in the foot-tapping, hand-clapping, hip swaying rhythms of the song and dance that accompany great news
In our gospel today, Mary – a young woman, newly pregnant and most probably completely awestruck by the visit from the Angel Gabriel, who announced that she was to bear the ‘Son of the Most High' – Mary paid a visit to her relative Elizabeth, six months pregnant, whose child was also announced by an angel, as one who would have the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah.
There, as Mary and Elizabeth greeted one another, they were probably the only women in the world who could come close to understanding what each other was experiencing at that moment.
Both are utterly bowled over, and Mary launches into a song of praise to the Lord, proclaiming the wonders and promises of God. We call this song of Mary the Magnificat; and we do so because ‘Magnificat’ is the first word of the song in its Latin translation.
Mary’s song has become one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It has traditionally been used in the daily offices in both the Eastern and Western Churches, and became the Gospel canticle for the evening office in the Western Church. It continues to be sung or said in this Cathedral (as in churches all around the world), every single day at Evensong.
We have a saying: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. I don’t know about contempt, but familiarity with the Magnificat can blind us to the storm-force, revolutionary message of Mary’s Song. Indeed, so revolutionary is the message of this song, that the plantation-owners in the Caribbean (in the days of slave-trading) would not allow their slaves to have access to the text – so potential dangerous might the consequences be!
We can get so used to the words rolling from our tongues that we are in danger of forgetting to think about the meaning.
Mary is clearly steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, the psalms and prophetic writings, and the promises of God to the Jewish people; her song is drawn from these and, most especially from the song of another woman - Hannah – whose song can be found in 1 Samuel Chapter 2.
Mary’s song declares and reminds us that the values of God turn the values of the world upside down, and that God, the powerful, holy, merciful and faithful One is the reason to be celebrated.
How very apt it is, on this day of Ian Keatley’s Installation as Director of Music at Southwark Cathedral, for us to be reminded of our call as Christians – to sing justice, and to live the song. Whether we are musically gifted or not, whether we are from London, or Bergen, or anywhere in the world – our call as Christians is to sing justice, and to live the song.
Sing justice, and live the song.
We all experience and appreciate the power of music, I am sure. When we sing a song we are more likely to remember the words than if we had simply said them or read them. I started singing the Magnificat as a chorister at the age of nine – and for that very reason, I am most likely to be able to quote it to you from the Book of Common Prayer version. Singing something makes it stick.
Music touches the very deepest levels in us; the most profound parts of our humanity.
Music can expand our consciousness. It helps us to sense the numinous, to grasp the transcendent; to have a glimpse of heaven; to feel the presence of God.
Music stimulates the brain – particularly the part which controls emotion; and when we sing together, it affects us physically, too - our hearts and lungs, and singing can lead to feelings of well-being, as well as provoking a bond between those who are making music together.
May Ian Keatley’s commission to lead the music at Southwark Cathedral be supported by us all as we seek to sing justice and live the song.
So what is Mary’s song saying? Amongst other things, it says that…
- God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
- The Mighty One has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
- The Merciful one has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
- And God will keep his promises to Israel.
Mary is singing justice.
And as their babies were growing in the warm, enveloping, rhythmic, nurturing safety of their wombs, both Elizabeth and Mary recognise that their own offspring would be bringing to fulfilment the very prophecies of God. Mary’s song anticipates the teaching of Jesus. Think of the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor… (says Jesus)
… those who mourn
… the meek
… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
… the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and so on.
The commonly held signs of being blessed are turned completely on their head. So much for a prosperity Gospel; blessed are the poor. In a world and in a society where the poor can be despised and marginalised we need to keep our minds focussed on that truth, lest it be crowded out by louder claims and seemingly more colourful attractions. Blessed are the poor.
I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t express astonishment at recent political events. So much has changed even since a large group of diocesan Bishops issued an open letter on Brexit, just over a week ago, but what they wrote then still applies to the role of the Church now. Let me read you some short extracts from their letter:
As bishops with pastoral responsibilities in communities across urban and rural England, we respond to the call by Jesus to tell the truth and defend the poor. We also recognise that our obligations go beyond England and impact on relations with the wider UK and our neighbours in the EU…
Our main social and political priority must be to leave well, paying particular attention to the impact of political decisions on those most vulnerable…
… Churches serve communities of every shape, size and complexion. We continue to serve, regardless of political persuasion. We invite politicians to pay attention with us to the concerns we register above and encourage a recovery of civil debate and reconciliation.
Bishops in the House of Lords have continued to play a role in Parliament this week. Our own Bishop of Southwark, Bishop Christopher, was in the House of Lords with others on Wednesday through to 3.00am on Thursday morning, and then again on Friday.
Some people have thrown criticism at bishops for intervening in political matters. And in the face of this reaction, I am reminded of Desmond Tutu’s famous statement:
“When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”.
Let none of us be intimidated into whispering the Magnificat in a corner; let us sing it out with joyful celebration of God’s promises, with full heart and voice, with conviction, expression and harmony and, as we sing justice, let us also live the song.