Considering the life of Mary in musicby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
This Sunday people will gather at a Twin Cities chapel to hear the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. It's not a sermon, but a musical concert, by local folk singer Ruth MacKenzie. Mary is just the starting point for a performance that contemplates what it means to lead a holy life in today's world, no matter your religious beliefs.
St. Paul, Minn. — Ruth MacKenzie is a well-known folk and jazz singer in the Twin Cities.
But you might also know her for her work, "Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden." It features a variety of Scandinavian singing styles to tell the Finnish national epic.
Or you may know her from "The Snow Queen," a show based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale which she wrote, directed and performed at the Children's Theater Company.
MacKenzie says she's always been drawn to old stories with layers of meaning -- stories that hold universal truths about how we live and why we're here. That led her to enroll in seminary school, not to become a minister, but to better inform her music.
"I think music, like any great art, is a point of beauty," said MacKenzie. "Beauty can point toward the transcendent. It can act like a window in which we see into another world, and that's why I think music is such a powerful vehicle. It works on a different level other than our intellect. It makes our hearts open, and we see something differently."
MacKenzie's show, "Theotokos," is the result of her theological studies. "Theotokos" is the Greek word given to Mary. It means "god-bearer." It comes from the story of the Annunciation, when an angel came to Mary to tell her she would give birth to Jesus.
"What I started thinking about is, how might we all be god-bearers?" said MacKenzie. "How do we make some kind of connection with the divine, or how might we all find ways in which the transcendant can move in our lives?"
MacKenzie says she took the story of the Annunciation and deconstructed it. She drew together Christmas music from around the world, along with text, to retell the story of the Annunciation and underscore its universal themes.
The piece deals with the joy, fear and risk involved in Mary's task.
Dr. Wilson Yates at United Theological Seminary advised MacKenzie on the project. He says, like Mary, we have all been given difficult burdens in life.
"We have been touched, if you will, by the spirit of God to be in the world and about the world, and the world's problems, sorrows, and joys," said Yates. "In that sense we are like Mary. We are to give birth to a new world, a world that's marked by wholeness, by what we would like the human community to be, rather than what it often is."
Yates says he particularly appreciates how MacKenzie takes the story of Mary and relates it to the earth and the environment, as well as to social justice issues.
MacKenzie says it was only natural. She says in exploring the story of Mary she became deeply aware of how connected people are to one another, and the planet.
"The fact that we live -- actually the fact that we die -- and that we have consciousness means we must ask, 'Why do we live?'" said MacKenzie. "I think the Annunciation story, it tries to get at the answer. This story is about walking in friendship with life."
Ruth MacKenzie performs "Theotokos" with the Mila Vocal Ensemble and Unity Singers on Sunday at Our Lady of Victory Chapel on the campus of the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.
MacKenzie says she hopes "Theotokos" will inspire people to allow this holiday season to be a time of deep reflection, rather than frantic consumption.
- All Things Considered, 12/10/2008, 4:53 p.m.