“The Canticle of the Turning”: The Gospel of Luke and Radical Imagination

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Sunrise at Eastern Point Retreat House Gloucester, MA. “The daybreak from on high will visit us” (Lk. 1:78)

If I had an opportunity to sit down and chat with one of the four evangelists, I’d pick Luke. I just find his gospel so riveting and his characters so compelling. Any child somewhat familiar with the New Testament knows key passages found in Luke: the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, etc. And let’s not forget that Luke is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, which is full of exciting accounts of the fledgling Christian communities and their early struggles and triumphs. These narratives are well-known because Luke is such a masterful teacher and storyteller. First he hooks our attention by telling us something that relates to our lived experience, and then with a surprising twist he invites us to see this reality in a fresh, new way. This method of storytelling, however, is not intended to merely entertain or captivate. Luke uses the art of storytelling as an act of prophetic witness. In the prophetic tradition, the words of human stories and songs can have the power to simultaneously shatter expectations and transform reality.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is infused with what scholar Walter Brueggeman calls the prophetic imagination. According to Brueggeman, this prophetic imagination is the ability to imagine the world in such a way that it challenges all our false assumptions about the dominant power structures and worldview (1). This is precisely what grounds and shapes Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ self-understanding, ministry, and preaching. Jesus refuses to be manipulated by the tantalizing rewards of the social and economic power because he envisions the world as God does and invites others to do the same. Everything is topsy-turvy in the alternative community Jesus forms. The lost are found (Lk.15:1-32). The stranger and enemy are called neighbor (Lk.10:29-37). What was hidden in darkness is brought into the light (Lk. 8:17). The last are first (Lk.13:30). The unnamed are named (Lk. 16:19-31). The rejected are honored (Lk. 14:15-24). In this new reality that Jesus identifies as the Reign of God, the poor and the hungry are filled while the rich go away empty-handed, completely overturning the traditional approaches to social economics and labor. Biblical scholars call this Lucan theme “the Great Reversal.” Through his preaching and his healing, Jesus shows just how much human rationale fails to measure up to God’s infinite wisdom and compassion.

Lest we over-sentimentalize Luke’s ability to weave a good yarn, the whole arc of his narrative makes it clear that this call to be disciples of radical imagination is not easy. As John Slattery rightly pointed out in his post a few days ago, following Jesus requires us to honestly acknowledge and atone for the ways we participate in and even enjoy the fruits of unjust social norms and structures. This means that we have to face and name the dehumanizing realities festering in our communities and seek to change them. But as the daily news reports show us, we as a nation are suffering from a serious lack of imagination. What does it say about us when we fail to give adequate asylum to thousands of children fleeing their violent homelands in the search of a promised land? This is but one example of our collective failure to imagine a truly just and peaceful world and our failure to see with the eyes of our compassionate God. If we take the woes in Luke seriously (Lk. 6:24-26), we must concede that this failure to imagine separates us more and more from the God of liberation.

I believe that returning to our God requires deep communal prayer and it just so happens that two of the most widely known Christian prayers are found in Luke’s gospel. The Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79 is the traditional prayer of morning and the Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) is the traditional prayer of evening. Praying with these ancient Christian hymns can help cultivate this radical imagination we need to be disciples of Jesus.

One of my favorite musical renditions of the Magnificat is Rory Cooney’s “The Canticle of the Turning.” The opening verse and chorus go like this:

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, will 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!

Reminiscent of an upbeat Irish folksong, the “Canticle of the Turning” evokes that peculiar emotional fusion of lament and hope. When I pray with it, I imagine Mary being so filled with relief, excitement, nervousness, gratitude, joy, and hope that her prayer overflows into a spontaneous, raucous song. She starts her clapping her hands and tapping her feet. Suddenly she grabs the shocked Elizabeth by the hands and together the two pregnant women playfully twirl around the kitchen singing and laughing in celebratory anticipation! Our God is good! Our God is present! This beautiful, broken world that is so corrupt, so unjust, so hurtful, and so dark is going to change! God has not abandoned us! In fact, God’s grace fills us! And our salvation is at hand! And then the mute Zechariah walks in the door–startled by this display of uncontainable joy. How will he respond? Although unable to join in the song, perhaps he joins the dance. Just picture it: those soon-to-be mothers and Zechariah all caught up in the Holy Spirit’s whirlwind dance of promise! Perhaps dance comes to mind a few months later at his son John’s circumcision. It is then that Zechariah is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” regains his speech, and sings his own prophetic song:

“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on high will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace!” (Lk. 1:76-79, NABRE)

Brueggeman notes that “…only people in covenant can sing. New song time is when new covenant inaugurates a new mode of reality.”(2). But I think a lot of us are like Zechariah. We want to believe God’s promise. We want to imagine and participate in a more just and peaceful world. Yet something—is it Power? Prestige? Wealth? Fear? Uncertainty? Apathy? Busyness?—stifles our ability to join in the new song.

The inability to sing is a symptom of our inability to imagine God’s promise of a new reality. And the inability to imagine generally means we are too comfortable and secure in our little worlds. So, what can we do to fire up the imagination? Taking a cue from Luke, we can start by first believing in this all-merciful, compassionate God who is on the side of the outcasts and then we can start listening and gathering up the songs and stories of others around us, both the dirges of lament and the songs of hope and praise. Luke’s gospel shows us that it is in the stories and songs sung by those most oppressed, most marginalized, and most difficult to hear where “new covenant inaugurates a new mode of reality.” And if after listening, we still can’t join in the song, let’s put our hands and feet to work and join the dance. Dancing allows us to let go of our need to control, our inhibitions, and our judgments. Dancing loosens up the ground of imagination so God’s promise and vision can take root. Eventually, like Zechariah, we will begin to believe that the new dawn approaches and our voices will be restored. Because the truth is, God is turning the world around. Luke dares us to have the courage to imagine and live out this new, alternative reality inaugurated in Jesus.

 

1. Walter Brueggeman, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001).

2. Brueggeman, 74.

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