46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (Luke 1:46–47 NRSV)
I enjoy Christmas music! The hymns, songs, and carols are among the most joyous of all music. I also like Advent music. Advent music is different than Christmas music. Advent also has a joyous side, but its joy is always tempered with a certain bittersweet underside about how the world really is, not necessarily the way we would like it to be.
The song of Elizabeth and Mary as reported in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, is at the heart of this peculiar Advent joy. It has inspired many musical settings from ancient times to the present. The song comes as Mary, newly with child by the Holy Spirit, travels 100 miles south to process her angelic visit with Elizabeth, the elderly and formerly barren wife of Zechariah the priest who is reportedly six months pregnant with a son to be named “John.” Luke reports that upon hearing the voice of Mary, Elizabeth’s baby “leaped in her womb.” Elizabeth says to Mary, 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44 NRSV) This song of joy is begun by Elizabeth and is an amazing contrast for a woman who has suffered in silence for many years and has been in isolation for five months.
Mary quickly picks up this song of joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, / 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46–47 NRSV) At the beginning of the song, this joy seems to be all about her personal situation: “My soul…my spirit…. And then she continues
48 for [God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Then, suddenly, the tone of the song turns, and “the lowliness of his servant” is contrasted with the impact of this news on those that aren’t so lowly. There are three sets of contrasts that put the joy of Mary and her cousin into the perspective of an oppressive and tumultuous and violent world:
- 50 …[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51[The Mighty One] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
- 52 [The Lord of Israel] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
- 53 [This Savior God] has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
What is obvious is that while there is joy for the two poor and formerly childless women, that joy is not shared by the rich and powerful. The power of the Mighty One is a revolutionary power that overturns the supposedly supreme power of the earthly rulers.
In the next verse (v. 54), there is a different word and a different reference for “servant” than in verse 48. Mary, the “slave girl” (δούλη) of God (v. 48) sings not for herself alone but from the perspective of the nation of Israel which is called the “child servant” (παιδός) of God.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The people of God are the servants of God as well as the children of God. Their joy comes because in the age of the Messiah, the powerful rulers that oppress them will cease their evil rebellion and bow before this Messiah King. Thus, the difference in perspective is striking. Luke will go on to make clear that the promise to Abraham fulfilled in Jesus is also the basis upon which people of all nations will join the people of God.
God’s people are precisely those who will give their allegiance to the Messiah instead of any human power, whether nation or party or philosophy or “ism.” These are people who follow God’s way of peace and justice. They refuse to rule over others by playing the game of “divide and conquer.” They realize that even the little leverage they might have in the current power politics is not what will ultimately bring God’s rule into the world.
So the question for all of us in this Advent season is “What kind of joy will we choose? In other words, “Whose song will we sing?” Every day, we are tempted by the national anthems, the military marches, the songs of romantic love and pleasure, and the echoes of self-fulfillment (“I Did it My Way”). All of these may make for a fleeting “Merry Christmas” if the goal is being merry with food and presents and happy times for a few days. Yet, 2020 is showing us that a different perspective is necessary.
The joy of Advent is to identify with the poor and weak and powerless of this world like Elizabeth and Mary. Their song is one for the welfare of not just the individual “me” for a few fleeting hours, but for the whole human community in all time and space, a new nation called to allegiance to the Messiah. The song is simple: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
The joyful baby in Elizabeth’s womb invites those who would call themselves God’s people to repent and turn around from our selfish and proud ways. The baby in Mary’s womb calls people from every tribe and nation to follow him in the way of self-giving and sometimes suffering love for a sick and broken human community.
I enjoy the music and the merriment of Christmas. But, for the long term, I’ll take the sadness turned to joy of the Advent song as “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”