Tell out, my soul

Katrina DowlingMusic2 Comments

Franz Anton Maulbertsch: Visitation (detail), c.1771-1777

This week we’re singing Timothy Dudley-Smith’s metrical setting of the Magnificat, “Tell out, my soul.” The text of the Magnificat, from Luke’s Gospel, is usually read in Advent, and, although in many traditions it’s part of daily prayers, at St Luke’s we don’t normally have it in corporate worship at this time of the year. Yet here it is on the day we celebrate Holy Humour – both our laugh-out-loud joy at God’s victory and our laugh-at-ourselves appreciation of the way that God’s sovereignty turns our pretensions and power structures upside down (“the humble have been lifted high”).

When I look at the Magnificat, I enjoy reading from just before the song, to hear how Elizabeth’s words of recognition and blessing call forth Mary’s song of praise in turn. It’s an amazing spectacle of affirmation. This is the episode, in the translation that inspired Dudley-Smith’s hymn:

About this time Mary set out and went straight to a town in the uplands of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud, ‘God’s blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. How happy is she who has had faith that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled!’

And Mary said:

‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord,
rejoice, rejoice, my spirit, in God my saviour;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant,
humble as she is.
For, from this day forth,
all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.
His name is Holy;
his mercy sure from generation to generation
toward those who fear him;
the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might:
the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout,
he has brought down monarchs from their thrones,
but the humble have been lifted high.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things,
the rich sent empty away.

He has ranged himself at the side of Israel his servant;
firm in his promise to our forefathers,
he has not forgotten to show mercy to Abraham
and his children’s children, for ever.’[1]

Elizabeth and Mary are telling out praise to each other, in a way that reminds me of the poetic image in Psalm 19 of all creation pouring out praise, every moment reciprocating and in turn evoking a new part of the song:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.[2]

Leonie Stocks, Autumn equinox, Melbourne 2017

And, to return to Holy Humour, there’s something about the profound truth in which, in the act of praising, we come to rest, that allows us to contemplate our ridiculous smallness with delight, as an element in the whole relationship between God and creation. John O’Donohue observes that:

the act of praising draws you way outside the frontiers of your smallness. To praise awakens the more generous side of your heart. It draws out the nobility, the Úaisleacht, in you. When the soul praises, the life enlarges.[3]

It’s ironic that if you measure yourself in the context of human society, it tends to foster a sense of need and anxiety and serious self-regard, but when you see your smallness in the vast greatness of God, it tends to lead to self-forgetting and trust and gladness!

These two Scripture texts and the hymn could furnish a lifetime of experience. In your recent enjoyment of the Magnificat and “Tell out, my soul,” what has been speaking to you? Back-and-forth telling out of praise across distance and generations? Subverting human power structures? Or something different?

[1] Luke 1:39-55 (NEB)

[2] Ps. 19:1-4 (NRSV)

[3] John O’Donohue, Eternal echoes: Exploring our hunger to belong (London: Bantam Press, 1998), 299.

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