And Mary sang: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
Today we pick up where we ended last week, looking at the four songs – four of the earliest hymns of the Christian church – which make up the story of Christmas as we read in the Gospel according to St. Luke.
Last week we looked at the Song of Zechariah, the old man with his wife Elizabeth who, by God’s grace, were given a child in their old age; a child who would be John the Baptist, the great prophet preparing the way for the Lord.
In that song, that first act of this great musical, we saw how this birth was connected to so many other “impossible” births before it, as so many of the crucial turning points in God’s plan to save his people depend on God providing a child in an impossible situation.
We also saw that this theme of childless couples proves a point – that God’s mighty intervention doesn’t come for those who “sort of” depend on God, but is for those who realize that they’re out of options, that there is nothing that they can do in their human strength, to change their situation. It’s in those situations that we see God keeping his word to defend the powerless.
A Hymn of Praise
Today we hear another great hymn of the Church, this time on the lips of a more familiar character in this Advent drama: Mary, the mother of Jesus.
If we look at that text, the text we recited on page 86 of the BAS, we see that this triumphant song of praise has three parts.
It begins as all good hymns should begin – by praising God. “Deep in my soul – with all that I am – I proclaim the greatness of the Lord”, why? “Because, as he promised through the prophets and has displayed throughout the Old Testament, he has favour on his lowly servant.”
Then, from that opening full of praise, we hear that this, indeed, is part of God’s plan unfolding. Just as generations before had known God as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, just as the entire nation of Israel knew God as the one who spoke through Moses, as the one who established the throne of David, so, “from this day,” says Mary, “all generations…” will know that our God, the One True God, is the one who brought forth his Son Jesus Christ from the Blessed Virgin Mary, something that we proclaim every time we gather.
“The Strength of His Arm'”
Then the song takes a different direction.
“He has mercy on those who fear him; he has shown the strength of his arm; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones; he has filled the hungry with good things.”
…but wait now. Here we have Mary singing this great song about God’s power and might… but who is she? She’s a pregnant teenager from an unimportant, practically unknown village, engaged to be married to a common tradesman.
And she’s singing these words as a person whose government has been overthrown, and who is now subject to a vast military empire, and empire in which the mighty sit quite happily on their thrones, and the poor are taxed heavily even on what little they have.
By any objective worldly measure, “the hopes and fears of all the years”, the hopes and dreams of freedom from oppression and justice for the lowly aren’t all delivered as Mary sings her song; not even close, as St. Matthew tells us it won’t be long until her own little family, Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, flee to Egypt to escape a proud, conceited ruler on his throne.
And, certainly as Christians gathered to sing this song in the generations that followed, their experience wasn’t better, but even worse than when Mary first sang these words. These earliest Christians were ridiculed, dragged before the rulers of their synagogues, beaten and at times even stoned to death by the powerful rulers; yet, gathering in homes, or hiding in caves, or meeting in fields outside of town they sing that God has shown the strength of his arm, that he has scattered the proud and cast down the mighty.
What’s going on here? How is it that this becomes one of the popular, universal hymns of the Early Church when it clearly doesn’t reflect the persecution and real pain experienced by these early Christians?
Well, the thing that persecuted Christians remember while we who enjoy our freedom so easily forget is that we, all of us who are part of the body of Christ, hold dual citizenship. Persecuted Christians remember, and we so quickly forget, that our Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world.
Yes, we have a God-given duty to work for justice; to remove oppression, to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to put hats and mitts on those cold heads and hands whose parents – for whatever reason – cannot care for their children. But, even if we created a perfect country, even if we somehow got our act together and managed to live in harmony as so many popular Christmas songs say over and over, still, crowns and thrones will perish, and the kingdoms of this world rise and wane. Though it’s our duty to do what is right, no amount of good deeds or happy thoughts can correct a world that is fundamentally bent towards pride.
And that’s why this song, and the whole Christmas story, the birth of the promised saviour, appears to be so great a paradox: the greatest king of all kings is laid in a manger, and God himself is nailed to a tree that he created.
It’s such a great paradox that it’s a stumbling block to all who think they’ve got the world figured out. But, either Jesus is God incarnate or he isn’t, and there is no in-between that makes any sense.
If he’s God, then this lowly birth is proof that his mission, his purpose, is not to patch up this broken world with its rulers and empires, but to re-make it, to make all things new. If he isn’t God, then this is simply a poor, unknown family giving birth to their poor son; a son who will be unknown for most of his life, and then after three years of teaching, be crucified for political crimes.
But, if he’s God, if we trust these words, then what we have here is proof that God’s plan is to get right to the root of the problem. If it’s the humble – those who know that God is God – who inherit the kingdom, then the greatest glory, the place of greatest power, is found in the greatest lowliness. Exaltation and true strength are found in complete obedience and humble service.
The Grand Solution to the Fundamental Problem
So we look at this ancient hymn, these great words about God’s display of strength not as a battle song for an earthly ruler, but as the national anthem about the Kingdom of Heaven, these words first sung as God joins himself to our humanity so that we may join Him in the place He is preparing for us, just as He promised.
And to do that, to make us fit to dwell with him, takes a complete overhaul of that humanity.
The solution for our sin of disobedience is not for God to give up and start over – after all, God delights in his relationship with people, and we were created to be the crowning jewel of creation, made in God’s own Image and declared “very good”.
It was a disobedient man and woman who caused humanity’s problem, corrupting the world itself, and in the process, making it impossible for us choose humility over power, and right over wrong.
But the glory of this hymn – and the entire story of our salvation – is that, with God, all things are possible.
If no mere mortal can overcome this bending of our wills toward selfishness, if there is no other good enough to pay the price of sin, then the truth is that God loves us so much that God himself would take on human flesh and be born as a lowly baby to show us the way to God, blazing the path and trampling down the gates of death so that we can follow where he leads.
And, for our humanity to be set on that path, it took the humility of a lowly teenage girl.
Where Eve in the Garden chose disobedience and gave birth to fallen humanity that lost its access to God, now Mary offers complete humble obedience; in the face of a birth sounds impossible, where many earlier players in this grand drama would laugh, Mary responds simply “I am the Lord’s servant; so be it”.
And it’s in this act of obedience that God is reunited to us – that Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes here, as Christ himself becomes the new Adam, the first-born of the new creation, and the head of the body to which we may be joined in the ultimate show to strength as death itself is defeated, as the offspring of woman finally crushes the head of the serpent as the strongest worldly powers are confronted with the thing that they fear most – the truth that, in spite of all their wealth, strength, and glory; in spite of the victories they appear to have won through conniving and ridicule and oppression; in spite of all of that, they will pass away.
Just as God promised.
For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forefathers, the promise from the beginning, that we would be his people and he would be our God, that he would reconcile us to himself, that when this world has passed away, when the mighty have fallen from their thrones and the wealth of the rich is worthless, those who fear the Lord, who walk humbly with their God, are lifted up, filled with good things, and dwell in that kingdom where the lion and lamb lie together, where there is no pain or fear.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
These words – this conviction of faith in things that we do not yet see – have been true for Christians in every age.
Will they be true for you?