The First Christmas Carol
Christmas is a time for music. It would be difficult to think about the traditions surrounding this time of the year without having the familiar songs echoing in our ears. Unfortunately, a lot of mediocre songs have crept into the repertoire of this holiday season. “Frosty the Snowman” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” have nothing at all to do with the celebration of the incarnation of our Lord and Savior. Then there is “Little Drummer Boy,” a horrendously annoying song recounting an apocryphal nativity event. The relentless “pa rum pum pum pum” is enough to want to make you grab the drum out of the kid’s hands and smash it to bits!
In spite of the “Little Drummer Boy” type of drivel, the Christmas season brings us some of the most glorious music the church has produced. We are used to having music everywhere we go—smartphones, iPods, and CDs make it possible for us to be constantly surrounded by music. Prior to our electronic age, the church was the primary place where music was heard. One of the great blessings of the Reformation was that the Reformers returned music to the people, as during the Middle Ages, only the choirs and priests sang. With the rediscovery of the glory of the gospel in the Reformation, all God’s people were able to unite their voices in singing with music to his glory.
In Geneva, John Calvin sought out the best musicians for the church (though he had to fight with the town council to get their salaries paid!). Martin Luther wrote scores of hymns, many of which we still sing today. George Frideric Handel’s majestic oratorio Messiah, though not written as “church” music, was composed as an apologetic for the gospel. The libretto was written by Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens, who was a devout evangelical. Concerned about the spread of deism and Enlightenment thought, Jennens used his King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer to trace the Messiah’s birth, death, resurrection, and second coming, using both the prophecies of the Old Testament and their fulfillment of the New Testament.
The gospel produces music by setting the redeemed heart singing! The Bible tells us that when God created all things by the power of his word, the angels of heaven sang together (Job 38:7). How much more appropriate it is that when the Word of God became flesh, his nativity was heralded by “choirs of angels” (Luke 2:13–14) and by the recipients of his redeeming work breaking forth in songs of praise.
This is what we find in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke here records for us two great songs, or psalms, of praise: one from Mary and the other from Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Some scholars have referred to these songs as “the last of the Hebrew psalms and the first of the Christian hymns.” These are the first Christmas carols, but they appear only in Luke’s Gospel. We might say that Luke was the first church hymnologist. One of the most interesting observations about these two songs is that both of them contain very little “original” material. Both are composed mainly of quotes from or allusions to the Old Testament.
Mary’s song (Luke 1:46–55) is her response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would be the mother of the Messiah. The song from the lips of Zacharias (Luke 1:68–79) is his response to the blessing of being chosen to be the father of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. Both of these psalms draw upon the wealth of Old Testament prophecies and promises of the Coming One who would redeem his people from their sins. Mary’s song, often referred to as “The Magnificat” (from the Latin, “my soul magnifies”), recounts not only God’s promises to provide a redeemer in fulfillment of his covenant made with Abraham, but also her personal need for and faith in this Redeemer.
In this song we get a marvelous glimpse into the heart and mind of this enigmatic young Jewish girl. We know she was a direct descendent of David (Luke 3:23–38), so the royal blood of the sweet psalmist of Israel flowed through her veins. Of course, by the first century, the royal house of David had fallen upon hard times, and this princess was a nobody from nowhere. Yet this obscure young girl was chosen by God to be the human mother of the long-awaited Messiah. She was not chosen for this privilege because of her beauty, position, or influence. Mary was a pious young woman who feared the Lord, and her response to the angelic visit displays her faith in and obedience to God’s word. There is only one reason why she was chosen by the Lord for this high honor: sovereign grace. Mary was a sinner who responded in faith to God’s gracious word, and we see this in the words of her song of praise.
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are familiar territory—the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, informing her that she would bear a son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, who would be the promised Messiah, the Son of God. In confirmation of this, Gabriel informs Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, advanced in years and barren, has conceived and is now in the sixth month of her pregnancy. She hurries off to Elizabeth’s house and upon entering the house is hailed by her cousin as being the mother of her Lord! Having heard this confirmation of the angel’s announcement, Mary sings a wonderful song of praise—a song of faith in God’s redeeming work as the fulfillment of his covenant promises, all of which come to fruition in the child she bears. Mary’s “Magnificat” is her song of faith—her faith rooted in the word of God. Mary rejoices in the fact that the Messiah whom she bears is coming not merely to save his people as promised in the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, but he is coming to save her as well. It is a wonderful statement of the character and nature of saving faith.
SAVING FAITH REJOICES IN GOD’S PERSON (LUKE 1:46–47)
Some critics deny that Mary could have composed such a profound psalm. How could a teenager write something like this? If the teenager knew her Bible, as Mary did, she certainly could! This song exudes the Scriptures, and Mary evidences a heart and mind saturated with the word of God. When the time comes for her to express her praise to the Lord, her mouth speaks with what fills her heart: the word of God! She had obviously been taught the word, heard the word, and memorized the word. When Mary prayed, she prayed God’s word with a mind and heart held captive by it.
REJOICING IN GOD’S MAJESTY AND SALVATION
“My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Mary begins where we all need to begin in our prayers—with God himself: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This is the theme of her song. The focus is upon the glory of God in the redemption of his people. Her soul is consumed with the glory, mercy, grace, and majesty of God. Though she does not mention her son Jesus directly, she focuses upon God who gives the gift of a Redeemer and redemption.
She has been given a great privilege to be the mother of the promised Messiah, but her concern is not to magnify herself or her blessing, but the greatness and glory of God. The truly important thing is not what God has done for us, but who he is. It is because of who he is, who acts in redeeming grace and mercy toward us.
“And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
In typical Hebrew parallelism, Mary restates and amplifies what she has just expressed: “And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Her entire being is praising God, soul and spirit. The glorious majestic God of Israel has come to save. Undoubtedly underlying her words are the many Old Testament statements of God coming to save his people in response to his covenant promise (possibly the words of Moses in Exodus 3:6–8).
God’s “coming down” in salvation, foreshadowed in the Exodus narrative, has now come to fulfillment in his “coming down” from heaven in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He comes down to be the Savior of his people. Mary could have said, “My spirit rejoices in God my Rock,” or “my Helper,” or “my Deliverer.” Instead, she specifically refers to God as her “Savior.” The One who is coming through her will be her Savior; she acknowledges she is a sinner like everyone else and in need of salvation. Whereas Israel forgot the One who came in deliverance in the Exodus (Ps. 106:21), Mary rejoices in him who in mercy has come down to be her Savior. As she looks to the glory and greatness of her Savior, she sees nothing in herself that merits or contributes to her salvation, but she relies completely upon who God is and what he does.
“For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Mary is the perfect example of how God lifts up “the humble and contrite who tremble at his word” (Isa. 66:2). She exalts the Lord as the one who “has looked on the humble state of His servant.” Here we see true faith that acknowledges that we deserve nothing from God and that we receive everything from him by grace alone. As James says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). She continues, “For, behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” The coming generations will call her “blessed,” not because Mary is co-redemptrix with Christ, but because she is a fellow sinner who has been blessed by sovereign grace.
“For he who is mighty has done great things for me.”
Picking up language from the Old Testament, Mary continues her praise by referring to God as the “Mighty One.” The prophets of Israel frequently linked the description of God as the “Mighty One” with his redemption of his people, Israel (Isa. 49:26; 60:15–16). Mary here affirms that the Mighty One, who has repeatedly brought temporal deliverance to his people throughout Israel’s history, has now come in powerful salvation of his people.
“And holy is his name.”
When sinners come face to face with the infinitely holy God, it is a terrifying experience—the prophet Isaiah knew this well. When in a vision he saw God exalted in his holiness, he recognized his sinfulness and knew he was in trouble. In his own words, he confessed that he was “ruined” (Isa. 6:5 NASB). Yet here, Mary rejoices in the Mighty One whose name is “holy.” Only a sinner who has experienced sovereign grace, whose heart has been humbled, and who has turned in faith to the Lord who alone is our Redeemer can rejoice in his holiness. Here Mary reflects the words of many of the psalms where praise is offered to our holy God who rescues us (Ps. 30:3–4; 103:1–4).
“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
Here Mary’s praise goes out from her as an individual believer to all God’s people in general. The Lord’s gracious dealings with Mary are not unusual or out of the ordinary. What God has done for her in providing redemption is what he does for all generations. This is covenant language that takes us back to the words the Lord spoke to Abraham when he established his covenant with the one who would be the father of all who believe (Gen. 17:7). The covenant made with Abraham now comes to fulfillment in the child to be born to Mary. As the apostle Paul would write several decades later, the “offspring” promised to Abraham finds fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
Though it is anachronistic to refer to Mary as a “Calvinist,” she was! She testified that salvation is all from the Lord alone. If anyone could claim merit, it was Mary—of all women who ever lived upon this earth, she was the one chosen by the Lord to be the mother of the Messiah; surely there was something in her to merit this honor. Yet she looked at herself and saw nothing but her sin and need of a Savior. All generations call her blessed, not because of anything she did or any merit she had, but because of God’s sovereign grace providing the Redeemer of his people through her and for her.
“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.”
It is interesting to note that as Mary continues her psalm of praise for God’s redeeming work, she now uses the past tense to describe God’s saving actions. She sees history unfolding in such a way that the great salvation that would be accomplished by Messiah had already happened! His saving work is so certain, she can speak of it as already having been completed. She sings the song of the dawn of the messianic age: with the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, God had already begun the full redemption of his people, the great reversal. The Son of God came to establish his kingdom rule with justice and might. This meant the ultimate overthrow of every proud nation and the humbling of every proud heart. Her words reflect themes that run throughout the Old Testament, emphasizing that salvation is totally God’s work and so certain that it can be spoken of in the past tense. In Mary’s praise, we hear the echo of Psalm 98:1–3.
“Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.”
When Mary sings her song, none of these saving acts of God have yet been accomplished, but so certain is God’s word that Mary is perfectly confident he will accomplish what he has promised. He will work out in history what he has promised in his word. He will bring about the great reversal in which the proud are humbled, the mighty are brought down, the humble exalted, the hungry are fed, and the rich are impoverished, doing it in an amazing way—through a baby born to a poor woman from Galilee.
In Mary’s day, Rome ruled the known world with an iron boot, including Israel. The world seemed out of control for God’s people, and nothing in their experience gave any hope that the circumstances would change. Yet Mary looked at this child to be born to her, and she understood that God was at work upsetting the entire world system. She knew that God was in control, working out his purpose as he had promised and prophesied throughout the ages. It is this certainty in God’s providential work that has comforted, strengthened, and emboldened believers throughout the centuries.
“He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
In the closing words of her psalm, Mary sees the child she is bearing as the one who fulfills God’s covenant made with Abraham. She connects the redemptive threads of the Old Testament in a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. The fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan is a person who is the “seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15), the “offspring” of Abraham (Gen. 12:7). The fulfillment of God’s covenant is a person. What is happening to Mary is nothing less than God fulfilling what he had promised centuries before, confirmed and expanded throughout the ages, and now coming to fulfillment.
Faith rests upon God’s faithfulness to his word, not ours. It rests upon God’s promises, not ours. It is interesting that Mary never mentions Christ in this song, yet it is all about him. She sees all of the Old Testament coming to focus and fulfillment in the person of the child she bears.
This song is all about the gospel! It is not about us or about what we do, but about the majestic themes of the Old Testament reaching their climax as God alone saves his people from their sins. Mary correctly saw that the heart of the Old Testament was the person and work of the Messiah to whom she would give birth; it is in that Messiah we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem his people.
As the apostle Paul wrote about Christ, “For all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our ‘Amen’ to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20). Mary’s song is the Christmas carol of every Christian. It is a beautiful and majestic song of salvation through God’s covenant faithfulness and fulfillment—the song of the gospel, the song of “the hopes and fears of all the years” being met in Christ at his birth.
Scott E. Churnock (MDiv, ThM) is pastor emeritus of Christ Presbyterian Church (OPC) in St. Charles, Missouri. This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of Modern Reformation magazine.