The First Christmas Carol

What’s not to like about Christmas?

Family gatherings (at least before COVID19), festive lights and decorations, gifts under a tree and Christmas carols make this the favorite holiday for most of us. The commercialized Christmas is another story with its credit card debt and Black Friday sales starting earlier every year. But, that’s not really Christmas, is it?

So, what’s not to like about the the biblical narrative surrounding the first advent? There we discover real drama with real characters facing real danger- but also filled with joyful expectation. We meet angels, awe-filled shepherds, wealthy magi and a paranoid king. But most of all, we are invited to visit a newborn baby wrapped in rags and clutching to life in the arms of first-time mother in a strange village far from her home. All this and more make it a wonderful story. But, was there any music? Did anybody in this drama sing or dance or weep? Was anyone so moved by the news to compose songs?

Yes, and those songs are what we want to reflect upon for the next few weeks of Advent.

The first song celebrating Jesus’ birth came from the lips of his mother. We discover Mary’s song in Luke 1:46 – 56. Having accepted God’s will to become the mother of a baby, born out of wedlock with all the shame attached, left her family in Nazareth to visit her aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah in the hills of Judea. Mary must have felt overwhelmed by the angel’s message and all the complications involved with her new mission, I believe she composed this beautiful song while enroute to visit Elizabeth who was herself six-months pregnant

Upon entering Zechariah’s home, Mary was greeted by Elizabeth boisterously shouting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

What a greeting! How in the world did Elizabeth know about Mary’s recent experiences and her “secret” pregnancy? There’s only one answer. Elizabeth was speaking through the Holy Spirit.

Mary responded with a song I like to think of it as the first Christmas Carol.:

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. (Luke 1:46-55. ESV

Mary’s song has been called “The Magnificat” because the first word in the Latin version, megalynei means to enlarge or to make something great. Mary is “magnifying” the Lord by describing God in ways that makes Him appear very great.

Note that Mary didn’t simply say, “I magnify the Lord.” No, that would be too feeble to express the deep emotions flooding through her very soul. She sings, “My soul magnifies…” This was authentic soul music reverberating from every cell in her body. She is boasting about what God was doing in her life. There is no lament about the difficulties facing her back in Nazareth. No fear or anxiety about the future, only praise for who God is and what he is doing. Her God is holy, eternal, powerful and full of mercy. He cares about injustice. He brings down the proud and the mighty and raises up the week and meek. He feeds the hungry and sends the power brokers home empty handed. She knows because only a few days ago she was the daughter of a poor peasant in Nazareth, considered by some as the “armpit” of the nation. Today she is singing like a princess, soon to be the mother of a king – The One True King over all kings!

She magnifies God because He has kept the promise that he made to Abraham’s descendants. She sings because her little baby boy will accomplish all the above and more.

Now that’s a powerful song! So relevant were those words 2,000 years ago when powerful Rome ruled and the hungry and homeless were neglected by religious leaders.

And those words are just as relevant today. How contemporary the Magnifact remains! Mary’s little boy is the promised child in Isaiah who will someday rule the universe. But, he must first suffer and die in the place of condemned sinners. Even his own mother has confessed that she too falls short of the mark when she sings, “my God and my Savior.”

Christmas, 2020, may feel different. We have been discouraged, even forbidden, to travel or gather with our extended families. People will be isolated in nursing homes or quarantined in an ICU unit on Christmas Eve. Some may even die alone with no family member present.

It is not a “normal” Christmas celebration this year. The world feels darker.

But, let’s sing with Mary because that baby boy in Bethlehem, that man touching the untouchable leper and loving the castoffs is the man hanging on a Roman cross praying, “Father forgive them…” That Christmas baby was, and is, God wrapped in flesh. He’s the faithful father waiting, watching for the prodigal to return. He is the good shepherd searching for the lost sheep. He is all this and more. He is the king of glory!

Although we may not enjoy a traditional Christmas, we can join Mary and magnify our Lord and Savior who “has looked upon our humble and broken state” and came on the greatest search and rescue mission in history.

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