This post is part of the series “Four Hymns of Christmas”
Tonight, my wife and I watched Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Somewhere between the ridiculous family and the over-the-top physical comedy and Tim Curry’s Grinch-like smile, I realized that I know this movie’s music by heart. Both Home Alone movies happen at Christmas, and I’ve seen them so often that even their soundtracks feel like Christmas to me1.
Music transports us like little else can; perhaps more than any other aspect of December, music reminds us what’s coming. Whether it’s terrible pop covers of Christmas carols in a department store the week before Thanksgiving, or a choir and orchestra performing Messiah, we can’t escape.
There were songs at the first Christmas, too, sung in adoration, preparation, celebration, and confirmation. Luke records all four of them:
- Magnificat, sung by Mary (Luke 1:46–55)
- Benedictus, sung by Zechariah (Luke 1:68–79)
- Gloria In Excelsis Deo, sung by angels (Luke 2:14)
- Nunc Dimittis, sung by Simeon (Luke 2:29–32)
They all have cool-sounding Latin names, but those names aren’t titles; they’re just the first word or words of the songs in Latin.
Charles Wesley, brother of John and a prolific writer of hymns, used to say we should sing our theology. Well, these four songs are right there in the book; they are literally theology. I think you’ll find that they contain far more than their fair share.
So we’re going to spend these four weeks of Advent with each of these songs, one at a time, with a goal of adding them to our repertoire of Christmas music. Especially if you can recite more than the first line of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, but even if you can’t, these four songs deserve top billing in your Christmas season.
Before you begin, go read the Magnificat in your favorite Bible, or just click here if you prefer: Luke 1:46–55. Then come back; we’ll be right here.
“My soul magnifies the Lord”, Mary sings, responding to Elizabeth’s pronouncement that she is blessed among women.
In my head, when I remember the Christmas story, I think of Mary singing this in the presence of Gabriel, the angel who announced to Mary that she was the prophesied virgin who would give birth to the Messiah.
That’s probably due to the compression of reading this story straight through without paying attention to the details. The song starts in verse 46, and the angel only left in verse 38.
But in between, Mary presumably sits on the floor stunned for a few hours, takes a nap, wakes up still in shock, decides she needs some help, leaves her home, travels into the hills, and arrives at the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, who conveniently have a divinely appointed pregnancy of their own.
Elizabeth feels John (later known as John the Baptist) leap at Mary’s greeting as she enters the house, and, filled with the Holy Spirit, excitedly tells Mary about it. Mary’s very presence humbles Elizabeth, foreshadowing Elizabeth’s son claiming he is not worth to untie Mary’s son’s sandals (John 1:27). But instead of saying an awkward “Thanks” like most of us would have, Mary responds with this glorious, extemporaneous, Spirit-filled hymn.
When we look at Mary’s song, two things stand out. First, it’s quite mature for a woman Mary’s age. She couldn’t have been much older than her mid-teens, or she would not have been betrothed—she’d have been married. And yet she has a profound understanding not only of the work of God for the Jews, but of the upcoming world-changing ministry of her son, Jesus.
I’ve worked with high school students in the church for years, and I assure you Mary would have been unusual, and not just, you know, because she was the mother of God.
She recalls the history of Israel: “His [God’s] mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.”
She reminds us of the promises made to Abraham: “He [God] has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
The Holy Spirit has opened to her the past trajectory of the people of God. I imagine these stories she’s heard her whole life all falling into place as she sings.
But she doesn’t see only the past; she sees in her song the work and ministry of Jesus Christ.
“He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate,” she says, decades before Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1–16). Of course, she is also talking about herself: in verse 48, she identifies herself as one of the humble whom He has exalted and as one who will be remembered for generations.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” she says, even though it will be many years before the rich young ruler gets discouraged by a camel and a needle (Matthew 19:16–26).
This teenage girl presents a tour de force of history and theology—and she sings it!
The other piece that stands out is how Mary redirects Elizabeth’s praise.
Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” But Mary spends only half of one verse—the end of verse 48—of the song on herself; the rest focuses on what God has done for her and for Israel.
Mary recognizes that her blessing, her exaltation, is not a result of anything she did, but is due solely to God, and she therefore directs her praise, and Elizabeth’s, to Him.
This is Mary’s song of adoration, the first hymn of Christmas.
We may follow her in this way: our first response to Christmas should be praise to God for what He has promised, what He has done, and what He is about to do in Christ.
And, of course, we should do it in song.
To be fair, some of the songs are literally Christmas carols, including the glorious “Carol of the Bells” by Mannheim Steamroller as Kevin runs through Central Park. ↩