THE GREATEST HYMN OF ALL TIME – Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

December 13, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54 (Is 61:10b)
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

What is the greatest hymn of all time? At a recent conference of The Hymn Society, participants had great fun participating in a low-stakes tournament to try and settle that question. The people who got to vote were hardly a representative group, of course, so their selection of “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” (Nicea) should probably not be regarded as definitive.

This Sunday, in place of a Psalm, the Lectionary offers what I would humbly suggest is actually the greatest hymn of all time: the Song of Mary (Lk 1:46b-55), widely known as by the first word in its Latin version: Magnificat. This hymn might be regarded as Luke’s theme song, expressing both the joy and preferential option for the poor that are characteristic of this Gospel and of the Christian message. We sing out our joy to the God who fills the hungry and raises the lowly.

The Third Sunday of Advent is sometimes called Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday, because the Entrance Antiphon in the Roman Catholic liturgy for today begins with the words Gaudete in Domino semper: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). Mary’s song and the other Lectionary texts for today take up this theme, but not in any superficial sense of “holiday cheer.” Rather, as they bid us rejoice, the biblical texts ask us to consider what motivates our joy and what difference this gift makes in our daily living.

The season of Advent calls us to focus on the coming of Christ among us—his first coming in history as an itinerant preacher announcing God’s coming reign and his final coming in glory to bring all things to fulfillment. Yet Christ is coming among us even in this present moment, and so this Sunday the Scriptures invite us to open our eyes to recognize the signs of his presence in our midst right now. John the Baptist’s response to representatives of the Pharisees is meant for us too: “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (Jn 1:26).

Look around! Recognize and rejoice in the presence of the One who has come “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Is 61:1). Because Jesus explicitly identified himself with these words (see Lk 4:18), we can find joy as we see him in those who care for the sick, comfort the grieving, and advocate for those in prison. We are called to rejoice as the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are fed, and the stranger is welcomed—because these are the instances in which even now we encounter the One who has come and is yet to come.

The joy of Advent is not a mere seasonal shot in the arm but is to permeate every aspect of our lives. In today’s Epistle reading, Paul expresses it this way: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18). Christ will come again, yet he is already among us. Our response to that presence is a life characterized by joy, prayer, and thanksgiving at every moment.

And so, on this Gaudete Sunday, let us sing out our joy with Mary in the greatest hymn of all time: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk 1:46b-47).

A Hymn for Today: “Canticle of the Turning”

Hymn Society member Rory Cooney has created an adaptation of the Magnificat that underlines its preferential option for the poor and lowly and its subversive message for the strong and mighty. This powerful text is augmented by a driving Irish folk tune that combines a spirit of joy with the feel of a protest song.

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

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!

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn. Refrain

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. Refrain

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,
‘Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around. Refrain

Text: Luke 1:46-58; Rory Cooney, b. 1952. © 1990, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission.
Tune: STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN, arr. by Rory Cooney

Image Credit: Magnificat, Vatican Library

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.