In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
When at New College, Oxford, I came to love choral evensong in the chapel. The excellent choir sang the Song of Mary each evening in a huge variety of settings. As the melodies floated around the beautiful chapel, they spoke of 600 years of choral tradition, the sound of an English empire whose growth, flourishing and decline had all been planned in this institution more than most.
Very few of the musical settings chosen convey the empire-shaking import of Mary’s words. Choral evensong has generally served to bolster the thrones of the powerful, strengthen the imaginations of their hearts and enable them to kick the lowly while they are down. It has been the musical accompaniment to the rape of all parts of the earth once coloured pink on the map – starting with my own country of Wales. Even ‘Woodlands’, to which many of us in the URC sing the Magnificat, bounces along in a jolly sort of way.
But these words are hardly jolly for most of us readers of the Daily Devotions. They sound out the doom of all of us privileged by birth, education, or wealth. The hungry will be fed and the lowly will be lifted up. In order for that to happen, the proud must be scattered and the powerful ejected from their thrones. And that means us.
Even the URC used to have an Oxford college and we still have a Cambridge one. We have an ethical investment policy – but only rich institutions need one. We employ people ecumenically (including the author of this devotion) to influence government – but only powerful people can do that.
When we say or sing the Song of Mary we are proclaiming God’s own word of judgement and revolution against ourselves. Dare we listen to the true cadences of the Magnificat?
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.