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Misreading the Magnificat
Misreading the Magnificat

When Mary came to visit, Elizabeth's child leaped in her womb. Mary's spirit, too, jumped to a higher plane. In the inspired exchange between the cousins, the pregnant virgin sang a prophetic hymn of praise for God's salvation. In that prophecy, Mary praised God for filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. We call her hymn the "Magnificat," and we Christians have been singing it as a regular part of worship since about the year 500.

For most of the 1,500 years since, congregations and cloistered monks and nuns chanted the straight, unadorned biblical text of Mary's song. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, musical paraphrases of the Magnificat flourished. One of my favorites is Timothy Dudley-Smith's bold four-square hymn, "Tell Out, My Soul." Others inhabited the folk idiom: Christopher Idle's "My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord," Rory Cooney's "Canticle of the Turning," and John Michael Talbot's "Holy Is His Name."

As a worship musician who tries to fine-tune what we sing with the Scriptures we read, I have felt frustrated by the way musicians blunt the Magnificat's protest against the 1 percent (to borrow Occupy language). Take Dudley-Smith's otherwise excellent "Tell Out, My Soul" as an example. Five years younger than his Cambridge friend John Stott, Dudley-Smith was part of the circle that renewed English evangelical hymnody midcentury. But in "Tell Out, My Soul," he focused on the first half of Mary's poetic parallelism that contrasted the powerful with the humble and neglected the second half that counterpoised God's treatment of the hungry ...

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December 2012

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