About to Turn

Column for December, 2016

One of my very favorite new hymns is called “Canticle of the Turning.”  I first encountered it about 12 years ago in a resource of music for youth ministry.  The words were written in 1990 by a Roman Catholic hymn and liturgy writer from Illinois, Rory Cooney.  The melody is a traditional Irish ballad called “Star of the County Down.”  It is hymn number 100 in the new Presbyterian hymnal, released in 2013, which our choir uses for some of our music.  We will sing the refrain from the song at the end of our service each week in Advent (those words are in the box on this page), and we will sing the entire hymn in worship on December 11.

“My heart shall sing of the day you bring.

Let the first of your justice burn.

Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,

and the world is about to turn.”

– Rory Cooney, “Canticle of the Turning”

Rory Cooney’s words are simply a setting of the Magnificat, which is Mary’s song which she sang when she visited her older cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, when she was pregnant with Jesus.  That story and song are in Luke 1:39-56.  Cooney’s lyrics offer praise to God.  They look to the present, when God brings a whole new order to the world, using a humble peasant girl as the means by which God is born into the world.  The words also look to the future, when God will upend the way things are to make them the way God wants them to be. “Not a stone will be left on stone;” “The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn;” “Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne.”  These are all visions not only of pleasant new life for each of us as individuals, but also for a whole new order for all of society, characterized by equality, abundance, and grace.  These visions come straight out of Mary’s song in scripture, they are repeated throughout the Gospels, and they encapsulate some of the central aspects of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and promised return.


The season of Advent also balances this view of the present with the view of the future.  Advent is our time to remember Christ’s promises that he will come again in the fullness of time to finally, fully re-make the world.  There are glimmers of that promise in the present in all of the ways that the world moves toward being more just, showing more mercy, and lifting up whatever is humble.  But the final fulfillment of Christ’s promises are still in the future.  During Advent, we remember that we are waiting, hoping, and watching for that final fulfillment.


Hoping, waiting, and watching are all skills I need to practice.  There is so much bad news in the world, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to get any better.  I am easily swept up in the world’s desire for immediate gratification; order now, and everything you have ever wanted will be delivered to your doorstep.  And while I am discouraged and impatient, I would rather just sit back on my couch and let things happen rather than engage, bear witness, and act to help others know they are safe and loved.


This season, encompassing the four Sundays before Christmas, I pray that you will join us to practice hoping, waiting, and watching.  We will gather for festivities.  We will hear and sing good music.  We will share some cheer.  But we will also talk about the promises of Jesus Christ to turn the world around.  And those promises are a gift because hope contradicts the bad news, and waiting is a salve for desire, and watching is an alternative to apathy.