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Magnificat

Why Is the Annunciation Story Relevant Today?

March 24, 2020 by

girl holding baby

On March 25, many believers around the world will celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. This date, nine months before Christmas Day, remembers the annunciation story: Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she would give birth to a boy named Jesus, son of the Most High.

For centuries, the significance of this event was highly respected. Despite most of Europe adopting the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century, until 1751 the English government (including its American colonies) still officially designated March 25 as the first day of the year.

Many modern Christians take little notice of the Annunciation. Nevertheless, I would like to share a song with you to celebrate the memory of this world-changing news, brought by an angel.

My wife and I first heard this Magnificat hymn almost thirty years ago from a group of peasants on the Central Plateau of Haiti. We stayed with them long enough to learn some basics of their language and later hosted a family from their group (father, mother, and small child) in our home for several months. They helped us to practice our fledgling Creole and to keep learning new Haitian songs.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder if folk like these know and appreciate the life and suffering of the historical Mary better than we who normally celebrate our religious holidays in comfort and plenty.

While in Haiti, Nancy and I travelled with the young mother and her baby, riding mules down mountain paths in the hot Caribbean sun. Later, when travelling with her husband and child to visit us in the USA, their country experienced a coup d’état and the family’s physical safety was at serious risk as they attempted to leave Haiti.

Many of us “first-worlders” cannot understand what it means for a teenage girl to walk or bounce on donkey back for over ninety miles (Nazareth to Bethlehem) immediately before giving birth to her first child. Nor can we grasp a 370-mile escape on foot into Egypt, avoiding enemy soldiers with a babe in arms. Many Haitians do understand these things, and we found verses in their songs about the holy family that reflect this identification with their poverty and suffering.

The Haitian songs we learned – mostly hymns – drew our young children into what we had experienced with the people. We loved to sing them together as a family.

Among the Protestants we visited, most hymns were traditional American favorites translated into Creole. This was enjoyable for us – singing songs like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” in Creole helped us to learn their language. In contrast, the Catholic hymnbook had many songs specifically written by Haitians using the language, music, and drums of their own culture. One of our best-loved creole chante is a paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat – sung with joy, rhythm, and conviction.

The lyrics from Luke 1:53 NIV, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” arouse emotion when sung by people who know hunger and the unfairness of life. Amazingly, the emotions we sensed were joy and hope.

Learning these songs drew our family together at the time – and over the years offered a musical bridge to fellow believers who speak this language.

mother and child

Once when our daughter was a schoolchild, in the winter of 1991–92, she heard on the news that Haitian President Aristide was living in exile in the United States. Brenna was genuinely worried that winters up north would be too cold for him – so she knitted a little wool hat that we sent to him.

To my amazement a few days later, a voice addressed me over the paging system in our community woodshop: “Please call switchboard, President Aristide of Haiti is on the line.”

He joined our family via speakerphone, and after thanking nine-year-old Brenna for the hat, sang a lively Haitian hymn with her, much amused and enthused that a little American child had learned to sing songs in Creole.

Many years later, in 2010, Nancy and I met a survivor of the terrible Haitian earthquake of that year. We were visiting Fox Hill Community in New York, where he was a local school bus driver.

Two weeks after the tragedy, the man was beside himself over the loss of his sister, who died when a public library collapsed. The only way we could think to offer comfort was to get out our Haitian hymnal. He lit up when he saw it, and told us he knew every song in that book by heart! After singing songs together for over two hours, he agreed to come back with his tanbou (drum) and perform Haitian hymns with us for the rest of the community. It was a moment to remember.

For the last twenty years, Nancy and I have lived in Australia and mostly lost touch with Haitian friends from that era. But the experiences we had with them changed our lives, and the songs we learned from them still bring joy and courage in difficult times such as these.

So please enjoy this primitive recording of our children singing a Haitian peasant’s version of the Magnificat. We do not post this tune for the musical or recording quality – it’s twenty-nine-years old, and my guitar was a total clunker. Rather, we offer a chance to reflect on the annunciation story, and on those people today who, like Mary after Gabriel’s visit, can respond to shocking and life-changing news with a song of joy and praise to God. We are sending up a joyful noise for a special day – “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise” (Matt 21:16 NIV)!

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About the author

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan lives with his wife Nancy at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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