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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Mary hymn seems fitting for Feast of Annunciation C. Michael Hawn, Mar 14, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly” Roland F. Palmer UM Hymnal, No. 272
Sing of Mary, pure and lowly, maiden mother, wise and mild. Sing of God’s own Son most holy, who became her little child. Fairest child of fairest mother, God the Lord who came to earth, Word made flesh, our very brother, takes our nature by his birth.
The role of Mary in Methodist tradition has been ambiguous.
On the one hand, we celebrate the appearance of Gabriel to the young woman and the song that she left us—traditionally called the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)—as one of the most revolutionary of the biblical canticles. We recall with sympathy the story of the pregnant maiden on a donkey searching for a place to sleep for the night and, as it turned out, to give birth to the Son of God. Fast-forwarding 33 years, we admire Mary as she remains steadfastly at the foot of the cross where her son suffers humiliating and excruciating torture.
On the other hand, many Methodists would be uncomfortable dwelling on Mary’s life or displaying adoration for her as Theotokos (Greek for “God bearer”), a term used by Orthodox Christians to refer to Mary who, as the mother of Jesus, is also the mother of God. Likewise Roman Catholic doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary would be alien to many Protestants.
Indeed, the biblical references to Mary are few and brief; yet she is a singular figure in the salvation story and her role is without a doubt profound.
Though not on the theme of the Annunciation, it is fitting that this hymn be introduced in this month as March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation which celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary with the news that she would bear the Savior of the world (Luke 1:26-38).
This feast dates back to the fifth century and is timed exactly nine months before the celebration on Dec. 25 of the birth of Jesus. Most events in the life of Christ, as observed in the Christian Year, are telescoped into a six-month period between Advent and Pentecost. However, the Feast of the Annunciation is an anomaly in that it is celebrated in the actual time that it takes for the gestation of a newly conceived embryo—nine months.
Fr. Roland Ford Palmer (1891-1985), Society of St. John the Evangelist, was born in London, England. In 1905, after his education at Skinner’s Company School, he moved to Toronto, Canada where he attended the Peterborough Collegiate Institute and Trinity College. Following his ordination in 1917, he served parishes in Port Arthur, Ontario.
Palmer joined the Society of St. John the Evangelist in 1919, and was appointed the superior of the society’s house in San Francisco. He later served as provincial superior, opening a society house at Bracebridge, Canada in 1927.
He was the author of several books including Good News (1943), Come and Worship: Training in Devotion, Readiness and Decency: a Simple Method of Celebrating the Holy Eucharist and Other Services (1961), When Ye Pray: Praying with the Church (1953), and other educational resources for the Church of England in Canada. In addition, Palmer was a committee member for the Book of Common Praise (1938), the Canadian Anglican hymnal, and served on a committee that revised the Prayer Book.
Stanza one of “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly” uses traditional language associated with Mary—“pure and lowly, maiden mother, wise and mild.” The stanza also recalls the paradox of the incarnation: “God’s own Son most holy, who became her little child.” The language of relationship between the child and Mary (“fairest child of fairest mother”) and to humanity (“our very brother, takes our nature by his birth”) permeates this stanza.
“Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly” is ultimately a hymn about the life of Christ including his birth, his “home at Nazareth” (stanza two), his ministry of preaching and healing, and his suffering and death on Calvary. A brief but tender reference in the second stanza implies the deep and abiding relationship between the son and mother: “Constant was the love he gave her.”
Stanza three returns again to Mary, capturing the range of emotions that characterized her relationship to Christ: a “joyful mother” at his birth, a “mournful mother” at his suffering and death, and a “glorious mother” seated by her son in heaven and revered “age to age . . . [and] blest in every land.”
A final doxological stanza was omitted in the UM Hymnal. It perhaps implies the adoration of Mary to a degree that is not acceptable for many Protestants:
Glory be to God the Father; Glory be to God the Son; Glory be to God the Spirit; Glory to the Three in One. From the heart of blessed Mary, From all saints the song ascends, And the Church the strain re-echoes Unto earth’s remotest ends.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.