By Jane M. Gardner
Mary, mother of Jesus, is an unlikely candidate for articulating the way of peace. She is a Jew, oppressed by Romans. She is a woman in a patriarchal culture. She comes from a long line of marginalized people. Regardless, she bravely exclaims to her cousin, Elizabeth, that with the birth of her child, “the world is about to turn.”
Mary isn’t the first: Miriam and Hannah in the Hebrew Bible also represent their hope for a better, peaceful world (see Exodus 15 and 1 Samuel 2). They are part of a tradition of women singing for justice and peace.
Read Luke 1:46–55 and then read the words of “Canticle of the Turning,” CCS 404. These texts tell us that God takes action in the world on behalf of the powerless, lifting the lowly, filling the hungry, tearing the mighty from their thrones. Notice how the scripture text has been masterfully paraphrased and metered by Rory Cooney in 1988 to make it singable for use in his parish. While Rory Cooney comes from the Catholic tradition, this song also appears in Lutheran, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and Community of Christ hymnals and is his most popular sacred song.
Rory Cooney describes his process:
So in setting this canticle for my parish, 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? “Star of the County Down” is not a revolutionary ballad, of course. It’s a love song about a man who aspires to woo Rosie McCann, a brown-haired beauty from “the banks of the Bann” near Belfast. The lyrics most of us know were written in the late 19th century, but the tune is much older… The tune dances a bit, and there’s both joy and excitement in the melody that I think fits the spirit of Mary’s song well.
The idea of this type of revolution (from the Latin volvere, meaning “to turn”), led Rory Cooney to the idea of “turning” for this song. In John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s preaching, we hear a frequent refrain of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Repent” is translated from the Greek word metanoia, representing a complete change—of self, mind, heart. It also can be translated as “turning around.” Revolution could be restated as “Let’s turn around and go a different direction.” Additionally, repentance has been defined as the act of turning toward God.
Not only does this turning lead us more deeply into relationship with God and others, it signals a turning from culture’s values toward a peaceable kin-dom. This type of peaceful revolution involves an interior change of heart/self and an outward new way of being together in community.
In Advent, this message of peaceful revolution foreshadows Jesus’s primary ministry themes. We wait in the darkness of Advent for this new dawn. We hear Mary’s song of liberation, justice, hope, and peace. In vivid language, she sings that the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the proud are scattered, and the lowly are lifted in one of the most significant expressions of social justice in the New Testament.
The energetic song is learned easily. It makes us feel like moving and doing, rather than sitting stationary. In a musical sense, we are singing the “overture” to the powerful messages woven throughout Luke’s Gospel. The primary challenge is fitting all the words into rather fast- moving notes without slowing down. They are a mouthful, perhaps on purpose, calling us to embody an urgent message: Ready or not, the world is about to turn!