Starting with Mary’s Magnificat, followed by Zechariah’s Benedictus, where he celebrates the birth of his son John the Baptist. Angels then sing Gloria in Excelsis to announce the birth of Jesus, and finally Simeon, a devout man promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the messiah, sings Nunc Dimitis at the dedication of the baby Jesus in the Temple. Of the four the Magnicat has captured the imagination of composers from Mozart, Monteverdi, Mendelson, to Vivaldi, Frescabaldi, Schubert, Ralph Von Williams and Jon Rutter, and the most famous version by Johann Sebastion Bach.
It seems very clear that Luke felt the best way to introduce the story of Jesus was through a burst of songs that tell the significance of his birth to the world – a Christ-Mass Pageant. Someday I want to read the first two chapters of Luke and sing the four canticles to hear the joy and hope he is trying to express. Here is what I think we would notice. These canticles are a creative remix of Psalms that tell the salvation history of Israel, in other words, an “oldie but a goody” remade with a contemporary beat. The Magnificat is a remix of The Song of Hannah, which was written over a thousand years before in the Old Testament book of First Samuel. Hannah also sang to give thanks for her pregnancy, and her son was Samuel, the first great prophet of Israel, who was known to be prophet of the lowly and marginalized in society. It was Samuel who challenged King David about his conduct of sending Uriah to his death to have Bathsheba to himself.
Luke is therefore telling the Gentile/Greek reader that Jesus did not come from nowhere to found a new religion. Rather his birth and vocation is the terminus of a long line of faithful actors carrying out God’s hopes and destiny for humanity. Jesus is linked to a peoples’ journey out of slavery in Egypt, the forming of a new nation called to live by a covenant of justice with their God. They rise and then fall short, only to reform and be redeemed again, coming out of exile in Babylon to rebuild again, and now live once again under the sword of Rome and longing for divine deliverance. Only great and passionate song can launch a message of such import. These four canticles embody the story not only of Israel, but of humanity trying to find peace with itself, a cure for our warring madness; longing for a healing, saving, just God who will not leave us to our own devices, even when we may deserve it.
This is clear in the Magnificat:
God’s mercy is from generation unto generations…
shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
The verb tense here is not a future tense, this is not merely a prophecy of what Jesus will do when he grows up. This is the “present perfect” verb tense – “God has scattered, has lifted up, has helped” these are things God has already done several times in the past and is continuing to do now through the hope growing in Mary’s womb. Mary’s joyous song celebrates God’s past and continuing action in the world, as now she is becoming a part of the story.
This is a radical statement for us today, when we can barely think past the last news cycle. We can be such a cynical, bored, “been there, done that” kind of society. How do we hear a proclamation that says to us, “God is faithful from generation to generation?” To the modern ear it may sound naïve, arrogant or anachronistic to speak this way. But I believe it is the modern sensibilities that are in error, for we are but a moment on the earth, but the Great Story of faith has been told for a long time.
In the midst of life, it may seem that we are constantly stymied, that injustice is static and the change we desire is a distant dream. But my short sojourn on this earth says otherwise. Great reversals are the norm of my nearly half century of life. I was born in 1964, the next year The Civil Rights Act was signed into law. I watched Neil Armstrong take that first great step out of Apollo 11 and walk on the moon. I have lived during the time of Roe v. Wade, the Fall of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall and Apartheid in South Africa. When I performed a Holy Union Ceremony in a church sanctuary 12 years ago, people were fearful that I might be asked to resign. Now that is the law of this Commonwealth and headed to the Supreme Court. I have watched Bill Clinton go from the man from hope, to impeachment and disgrace, to a beloved vegan, elder statesman. Nixon would now be seen by many as an ultraliberal. So by the time I retire, Elizabeth Warren might be seen as the last of the conservative old guard in the Senate.
Life has a way of turning today’s certainties into yesterday’s silly ideas, and today’s dreamers tomorrow’s heroes. And what of our own lives? There is a pageant that contains our story, a great song that expresses our hopes. For we have a part to play, young and old, we are shepherds tending our flocks, angels speaking words of hope to one another, wise travelers, gift bearers, Mary and Joseph, trying to raise our children well. This is your story, and I hope that this coming year you will all become pregnant! I stand ready to baptize all the new signs of life coming from you. Pregnancy doesn’t always have to start in the womb, for we can all have pregnant hearts ready to give birth to love, pregnant minds full of the birth pangs of hope, pregnant souls longing to give birth to Christ within. Pageant rehearsal for 2013 starts immediately in the new year. There are plenty of parts for all of you. As long as you are willing to play your part, the great story continues, and God keeps turning the world right-side up again. For Christ was born of Mary, and longs to be born in you.