Mary's Christmas Song

Isn’t Christmas great? Anyone who loves Christmas loves Christmas music. Even if Christmas isn’t your favorite holiday, you have to concede it has the best music.

God loves music. In Zephaniah 3:17, we see that God sings over us. And God’s people have always sung. Moses and Miriam sang when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.[i] Deborah and Barak sang.[ii] And the largest book of the Bible (Psalms) is a song book, filled with the songs of the greatest King of Israel and many others. Music has always been a part of God’s people and will always be – we know that in heaven we’ll still be singing.[iii]

It’s not surprising, then, that God’s coming to earth is celebrated with singing. In this advent series, I am going to share some of the songs that accompanied the first Christmas alongside some of my favorite Christmas songs today.

The first song is perhaps the most famous song of Christmas: Mary’s song of praise. But it is a song with a wallop that is missed by many a contemporary reader misses.

Let’s set the scene: a young Jewish woman, likely a teenager, living in the Galilean town of Nazareth, is met by the angel Gabriel, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Like so many others do when they meet angels, Mary’s heart is not put at ease by this terrifying creature’s words. I love the understated words of Luke that describe her reaction, she “tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”[iv] What type of greeting was this, indeed!

“Do not be afraid, Mary,” Gabriel responds, “for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[v]

Mary has a few questions that must have sprung to her mind at this news. The first one she asks would have been the most natural one to ask, “How will this be, since I am a virgin.”[vi]

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” Gabriel responds. “[A]nd the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God… For nothing will be impossible with God.”[vii]

It is at this point that it becomes apparent how the remarkable faith of this woman has found her favor with God. My other questions and objections would have come tumbling out. But Mary’s response instead is powerful trust, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

When Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, they are both swept up by the Spirit and make powerful proclamations of God’s power and purpose. Mary’s rich and poetic words have echoed through the generations. They are so poetic and so well-known that their power might be lost on us. As you listen to her words, listen to her words not just as a peasant girl, but a girl growing up under the political oppression of the Roman Empire, a girl whose grandparents and parents longed for the freeing of Israel and for the coming Messiah, the King who would rightfully restore Israel.[viii] Mary’s song is the song of a humble, righteous young woman, yes! But it is also the song of a prophetess, of a woman whose heart is set on her people and set on the Kingdom of God.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And 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 thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

Do you hear her song a little bit differently? Do you hear the prophetic power of Mary’s song? Do you feel the wallop?

She’s not waxing philosophical when she talks of God knocking off “the mighty from their thrones.” Everyone would have known who she was talking about. She’s praying that God takes down the oppressive Herod the Great.

“To heck with pax Romana [the peace of Rome]!” Mary says, “Give us Yahweh’s shalom!”

Are you as worn down by the failed American dream as I am? I am not ungrateful. We are tremendously blessed to be Americans. There’s not a country in world history I would trade mine for. And yet, like Rome, we are a broken, unrighteous fiefdom whose sinfulness is seen for what it is only in light of the coming Kingdom of our Lord.

And this Christmas season we sing boldly of the fact that the King has come to his Kingdom and inaugurated his rule. And we eagerly anticipate his return and coronation.

Let’s sing Mary’s song along with her,

And 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 thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

 

Melanie Penn’s Great Things on her new album Magnify reflects Mary’s song beautifully.

Photo credit: Joey Thompson/

 

[i] Exodus 15

[ii] Judges 5:1

[iii] See Revelation 4, 5, 7, 15, and 19.

[iv] Luke 1:29

[v] Luke 1:30-33

[vi] Luke 1:34

[vii] Luke 1:35, 37

[viii] Scott McKnight’s article in Christianity Today some year’s back reflects this truth powerfully: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/december/8.26.html.