Advent, Day 13: Magnificat

LOOK: Behold My Miracle by Fred Carter

Carter, Fred_Behold My Miracle
Fred J. Carter (American, 1911–1992), Behold My Miracle, 1980. Walnut, 55 × 20 in. Collection of Mary Carter Owens and Vel-Holly Fleming. Photo: Dan Meyers, courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum.

Born in 1911 in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Fred Jerome Carter spent the first few decades of his adulthood as a hardware merchant. In 1938 he married Eloise Davis, and in 1950 they adopted their first and only son, Ross.

In his late forties, Carter began to pursue art making, taking a beginner’s painting class, his only formal artistic training. But wood sculpting is the medium for which he became best known. Writer and documentary filmmaker Jack Wright classifies Carter’s art as “Appalachian art brut,” art brut (“raw art”) being a French term coined by modern artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art made outside the academic tradition.

In 1970 Carter was devastated when his son, having returned as a Marine from Vietnam, hanged himself. He and Eloise divorced shortly after, and Carter opened the Ross Carter Gallery, named in his son’s honor, where he started showing his own work. Below the gallery he established the Cumberland Museum to exhibit a large collection of pioneer tools and artifacts (having to do, for example, with farming, mining, spinning, and moonshining) that provided a window into Appalachian culture and history. It’s there that he met Vickie Hill, whom he later married. Vickie gave birth to Carter’s first biological child, Holly, in 1983, when Carter was seventy-two. Their daughter Mary was born two years later.

Carter created Behold My Miracle two years before Vickie’s first pregnancy, but he retroactively identified the figure with her. In a 1980 interview with Wright for Headwaters Television, he describes how the sculpture came about:

I was back, at Easter [1980], in the mountains, and a fellow was sawing up firewood. Now this was part of a walnut log . . . cut down forty or fifty years ago. . . . There was a limb going up through here about ten feet long. I said, “Don’t cut that up for wood. . . . I see something in this that I want to make. . . . I see a pregnant woman.” . . . So I brought it home and began to look at it. . . . The wood began to talk to me and tell me what it is. . . .

So, I will probably call this Behold My Miracle. That’s what the mother is saying and I am trying to get her to say, in the position of her hand and the look on her face, that this is truly the great miracle. . . . As though she is saying, “Behold me, in my greatest moment of the miracle!”

LISTEN: “The Glory of Jah” by Sinead O’Connor and Ronald Tomlinson, on Theology (2007) – The acoustic version in the video below, which appears on disc 1 of the album, was recorded live at The Sugar Club in Dublin.

There is no Holy One like you
You install kings and take them down
Truly there is no one beside you
You made all of creation with wisdom

Refrain:
May the glory of Jah endure forever
The boughs of the mighty are broken
And the weak are clothed with strength

There is the sea, vast and wide
With all its creatures beyond number
There go the ships, they all look to you
You lift up the poor into a place of honor [Refrain]

Jah makes poor or he makes rich
The pillars of the earth belong to him
And he has set his world upon them
To raise us up from the dunghill [Refrain]

The eighth full-length album by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, Theology is a collection of mostly original spiritual songs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s saturated with scripture. It contains:

O’Connor grew up Catholic and, until converting to Islam in 2018, identified as such, though she has always been unorthodox. Frustrated by the spiritual vapidness of the pop music industry in which she had found fame, in the early 2000s she studied theology at a college in Dublin, looking to connect more deeply with her religious heritage. Her favorite instructor, the Irish Dominican priest Wilfred Harrington, taught a course on the Prophets, reviving her interest in the biblical material that had so fascinated her as a youth. During this time, she was considering leaving her music career, but Fr. Harrington suggested that she set some scripture texts to music and see what happens. She took his advice, and the result is Theology, which she dedicated to Fr. Harrington. Listen to a ten-minute interview with O’Connor about the album, from the limited-edition Theology DVD released in 2008.

When I first heard “The Glory of Jah,” I thought it was a condensation of Mary’s Magnificat, which she voiced upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth following their mutual unexpected pregnancies—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary with the Christ:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46–55)

But as I listened more closely and flipped through my Bible to match phrases, I realized that O’Connor’s song is actually a pastiche of Old Testament verses from 1 Samuel, Daniel, and the Psalms, the primary source text being Hannah’s song of thanksgiving:

My heart exults in the LORD;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies
    because I rejoice in your victory.

There is no Holy One like the Lord,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly;
    let not arrogance come from your mouth,
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low; he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked will perish in darkness,
    for not by might does one prevail.
The LORD! His adversaries will be shattered;
    the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:1–10)

Hannah, an ancient Jew, prayed these words at the tabernacle at Shiloh upon dedicating her firstborn son, Samuel, to God’s service, as he was conceived after many hard years of infertility and anguished prayer. Mary’s song, which came some ten centuries later, picks up themes from Hannah’s, so it’s no wonder I originally misidentified O’Connor’s source. Mary would have known Hannah’s song from having heard it read in synagogue, and, as Mary’s son would also be set apart for divine service, perhaps she found a special kinship with this ancestral sister. Mary was also spiritually formed by the Psalms, another influence on her Magnificat composition; their words were deep in her bones, naturally coming out in effusions of praise.

Both Hannah and Mary praise God’s kindness, authority, and eternal plan, emphasizing his mercy toward the poor and the humble. Both songs are thematically linked to Psalm 113:5–8:

Who is like the LORD our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.

Now returning to O’Connor’s song: Line 2 has a corollary in Daniel 2:21, “he . . . deposes kings and sets up kings.” And the second verse seems inspired by Psalm 104:24–26, 31:

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, great and wide;
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
There go the ships
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
    may the LORD rejoice in his works . . .

When referring to God, O’Connor uses the Rastafari name for him, “Jah,” a shortened form of “Jehovah.” She had recorded her previous album, Throw Down Your Arms, in Jamaica, a collection of roots reggae song covers, and her spirituality was impacted by her encounters with the Rastafari there. “They use music to reassure people that God is actually with them and watches them, can be called upon,” she said.

So “The Glory of Jah” is a highly intertextual song, rooted in Hannah’s song but weaving in strands from other biblical books—and the result sounds an awful lot like something Mother Mary would sing!

One thought on “Advent, Day 13: Magnificat

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