May is Mary’s Month: A 31-Song Spotify Playlist

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Late one Wisconsin winter night during grad school, my housemate Tom drove me to the Milwaukee airport so we could pick up our other housemate, Isaac, who was coming back to town after a trip. Freezing rain was coating the roads with ice, which made driving treacherous — worse than a snowstorm.

We crawled along I-94, seemingly the only people dumb enough to be driving that hour in those conditions. (Isaac would owe us a six pack.) Then, through the mist, I saw something weird: It looked like an 18-wheeler was parked on the highway. Not on the shoulder, though — the big trailer part of the truck was sticking out into the right lane, our lane, perpendicular to the road. It had jackknifed on the ice and got stuck. We were heading straight toward it.

I shouted at Tom. He hit the break and pulled hard left on the steering wheel. And so began the longest five seconds of my life.

We went into a skid, the mother of all skids. The car turned like a spinny ride as we drifted left across the highway. My life did not flash before my eyes; time just froze. There was nothing we could do. And then, a foot from the concrete barrier dividing the east- and west-bound sides of 94, the car stopped. We were facing the wrong way, up the highway, quiet and still, as if James Bond had pulled off an absurdly dangerous parallel parking job. We had spun one and a half times around – or was it two and a half times? Either way, we were impossibly lucky: No other cars had been driving behind us and we didn’t crash into the wall. Tom took a deep breath and made a U-turn.

We made it to the airport and picked Isaac up. I flipped through Tom’s CD binder and put a Bruce Springsteen album on. And we sang-shouted at the top of our lungs the entire way home: pure, adrenaline-soaked catharsis. Compare that drive home to the scary first leg of the trip: We were not singing on the white-knuckling drive to the airport. We were certainly not singing as the car spun around and around. But then, when things were OK? We had to sing. We couldn’t not sing.

What conditions prompt extemporaneous joyful singing in front of other people? It was relief, gratitude and joy that night. You also need peace and security, knowledge that your audience won’t laugh at you for being vulnerable — and might even join you in singing.

The Visitation, from a Book of Hours, public domain

Scripture is full of singing-after-stress. The Israelites sing songs of praise after they are led out of slavery through the Red Sea’s parted waters. The prophet Isaiah proclaims that when God rescues his people from exile in Babylon, “the mountains and hills will burst into song before [them], and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (55:12).

My favorite example? Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke (1:46-55). The angel visits Mary and invites her to bear the Son of God; she wonders then accepts. It’s the Annunciation — beautiful, powerful, miraculous, but no singing yet. What does Mary do? She travels with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Only once Elizabeth confirms Mary’s “yes,” celebrates it with her, and shares in solidarity her own surprise pregnancy does Mary feel the relief it takes to sing. And what a mind-blowing song the Magnificat is, full of praise and justice and humility and holy boldness. It’s such a central song that the church sings it every night during Evening Prayer. It’s such a radical song that repressive governments have banned its public recitation. (For more on the song of Mary and the power of singing in Scripture, check out the work of theologian Walter Brueggemann.)

To honor the Mary-who-sings this month, we have assembled a playlist of 31 songs, one for each day of May. Some you might hear at liturgy; others not. We have a couple settings of the Magnificat in different languages. We have songs about the love of mothers. We have songs about sorrow and vocation and justice. We sing this month because the Lord frees us to sing — while holding in prayer all those places on Earth where God’s peace is being obstructed and singing is hard to imagine.

Our playlist takes its name from the poem “Magnificat of May” by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Thanks to my colleague MegAnne Liebsch for contributing significantly to the collection.