Today we sang Mary’s words – traditionally called ‘The Magnificat’ – in response to the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. “My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord!” Mary sings. And so do we.
In that song, we find these verses describing a God who turns the social order upside down:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
This is what Jesus Christ is all about. The Advent of the Lord means things are turned and the rug is pulled from underneath all our expectations.
One of my favourite hymns using the same tune as the one we just sang is called the “Canticle of the Turning”. It describes a God who keeps the world turning. The fourth verse goes:
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
The turning is not only turning things upside down. There is also a turning of direction. Often in the bible we hear the prophets, poets and preachers call people of faith to turn away from what is not good and turn toward God.Turn.
The act of turning speaks of movement that changes our direction. We turn, like paddling with or against a headwind, like following the centre line whilst driving around a bend in the road. Like leaning away or towards something or someone. Turning requires attention, intention and concentration. It is not going with the flow or giving up. It is hard work.
Significantly, then, when you turn, it is not sudden nor momentary. Not always but most often the turning is not pivoting in one spot. It covers some distance. And takes some time.
And, perhaps most importantly, the kind of turning that will have lasting effect, spiritually speaking, always happens in the dark and emerges from the dark. That’s why I like the words of that hymn. The Canticle or Song we sing at this time of year – in Canada around the winter solstice when darkness dominates each day and so much in our world is in crisis. Yet, it is during this dark time when we celebrate the light that is coming into the world, the light of the Christ that shines in the darkness.
Perhaps the only thing we are now anxious to turn is the calendar. We are seeing a light at the end of a long, narrow and dark tunnel. The COVID-19 vaccine is slowly but surely trickling into the country starting a long immunization campaign that will last most of the coming year. The COVID-19 era is not over. It won’t be for a long time still.
The ship is turning, slowly. We might not immediately experience or feel the difference at the start of a new and promising year. But the turning is nevertheless happening. And we need to embrace, learn to live and work with it.
In the darkness of the times, we are like in the womb. And like gestation, the dawn cannot be forced. New life cannot be prescribed. In the womb, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, we can only support and watch for whatever happens, however small and however incomplete it may first appear.
Socially, we may be self-conscious of singing out loud in the physical presence of others. In a packed room we may feel uncomfortable with silence. Self-consciousness is the blight of the spiritual path. Learning a new spiritual skill is difficult when we are self-conscious. So, perhaps there is an opportunity here during a socially-restricted Christmas.
Perhaps you have this time now to exercise important yet simple spiritual skills this season. Spiritual muscles that have not often – or ever – been exercised. So at home alone, sing out loud. At home alone, sit in silence and stillness to pray. Exercise your innate spiritual capacity to be aware of God’s presence all around you. This is crucial, gestation time for God’s Spirit to energize you as we move and turn into a new season.
Each time we sing or pray in silence our hearts proclaim a steadfastness, a faithfulness, not only of our commitment to the long journey forward but of God’s. Because each time we pray we confess the God who is turning the world around. So, may our hearts sing … for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
“Canticle of the Turning” #723 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006) OneLicense #A-732801.
Psalm 85:8; Isaiah 45:22; Acts 3:19