An Advent Song that SeesGod, Christmas , Theology
Contributed by: Food for the Hungry Canada
Written by: Jim Heuving
Luke’s gospel, the third book in the Bible’s New Testament, gives us the most extended version of the Christmas story. What would Christmas be without Luke?
Apart from missing the scoop on the gift-bearing “three kings from Orient” and baby Jesus’ desperate escape from the raging King Herod to Egypt, we wouldn’t have “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay” or “angels we have heard on high”. We wouldn’t have Jesus’ cousin John leaping in his mother’s womb or know of John’s father’s temporary speechlessness. We wouldn’t know of the priest Simeon and the prophetess Anna who had been waiting and longing for years to see baby Jesus presented in the Temple courts.
And we would have altogether missed Jesus’ mother Mary’s song of praise.
It turns out that Mary’s song, as it stands today, may be the most repeated song in the last two thousand years (it’s a reasonable guess). Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians repeat her song daily in their daily prayers. The famous European composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, made an entire symphony of it. Today’s artists could only dream of such a chart topper!
In her song Mary sings “all generations will call me blessed”, but we would not so quickly have picked that word—at least not the way we think of it today. To be blessed today describes someone who is without need, who has comfort, happiness, and no worries.
This is not true of Mary. She lived a humble, scrabbly life in a small, insignificant village. She was pregnant and unmarried. Her fiancé tried to ditch her, albeit discreetly. When she took her newborn to receive a blessing at the Temple, she instead heard Simeon’s and Anna’s words that her soul would be pierced as they described her son’s future rejection and violent death. Add to this personal reality her greater context—Mary’s people were ruthlessly subdued by Roman oppression; the nation of Israel was in a defeated and hopeless situation. Blessed is not how we would describe Mary’s life.
And yet, her situation is sadly familiar. Mary’s desperate story repeats around the world in so many tragic ways. We need only to open the news or look out our back door to see the brokenness. Droughts, famines, wars; pregnant teenage mothers, racism, political polarization; floods, oppression, poverty. God has granted humanity the power for making life happen but we have mismanaged our relationships with God, each other, creation, and our own selves. Like Mary, we wonder what the future holds.
This is what makes Mary and her song stand out. Mary sings of a new hope in the midst of great uncertainty. A child would be born who would alter her own reality and all the realities of generations beyond her. Such is the radical claim in her song.
When the contemporary British singer, Adele, launched her album “30” in time for Christmas, one reviewer suggested that Adele’s success was due to her ability to give an honest voice to what her generation feels and experiences. The comment made me think.
Perhaps the staying power of Mary’s song is that she offers a hopeful voice to every generation that longs for a world transformed. Perhaps her song’s stickiness is that it arises from the voice of one unknown young woman who sings a song that believes in a day when there is no more hunger, no more conflict, no more injustice. A day when life flourishes just as it should.
Mary’s song belongs to those who see a new hope. It is sometimes called the “song of reversals.” That is a good title because what Mary experienced and sang for the sake of us all is that this world’s troubles will be reversed.
For every unknown person who will never make a top 40 chart, Mary’s song is their song. It is FH Canada’s song really. It is the song of every Canadian child sponsor and every supporter and partner who desires to see a world renewed with hope, and sacrificially gives to help bring that world into being.
In the end, a sword did pierce Mary’s soul, and may pierce ours as well as we draw near to Jesus’ radical story of reversals. But, like Mary, we will also have the unconquerable joy of peering into the new reality of God’s faithful work in the world to reverse all wrongs.
Join me as I dwell on Mary’s song during these next four weeks of Advent and wonder why we ever got the idea that Mary was a quiet sort. Her song—the Magnificat—seems to suggest quite a different sort of person—but that for next time! This week, I invite you to listen to Johann Sebastian’s Bach’s work based on Mary’s Magnificat or perhaps Todd Agnew’s composition in his album Do You See What I See.
Mary’s Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55 (NIV)
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”