Saturday, December 24, 2016
The Music of Christmas: Reflections on the Magnifcat and Benedictus in Luke's Gospel
Luke 1:46-47 "And Mary said:
“My soul exalts the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior."
Music and the proclamation of the scriptures go hand-in-hand. From the very beginning God had ordained praise and worship - as seen in the opening scenes of creation when the angels praise God for the laying of the earth's foundations in Job 38:4-7 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, 5 Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? 6 “On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, 7 When the morning stars sang together And all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
We can picture music and the proclamation of the Word as two majestic steeds pulling the chariot of God's glory (I draw this thought from such passages as Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6:1-3). His glory is brought before us by a combination of Word and song - with the latter serving the needs of the former. Christian people have more songs and more to do with singing than any other religion combined.
Whenever we come to the birth-narratives of the Lord Jesus in Luke's Gospel, we find songs of praise intermingled with the declarations of His arrival. I thought it would benefit us today to consider the place of music in the celebration of Advent.
The Praises of Jesus' birth in Luke
The infancy narratives in the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel record for us five songs and poems sung by various saints or angels that praise the arrival of God in human flesh. The first two occurred right before Christ's birth. They are found in Luke 1:46-56 and Luke 1:67-79.
If you notice in some of your Bibles, these particular portions of scripture have weird sounding titles. For instance the first song, the song of Mary, is called "The Magnificat". The reason for this is because these are the first words of Mary's song as it is recorded in the Latin Bible - The Vulgate. This was the version of the Bible used for 1,000 years in the Old Roman Catholic Church. The influence of that version carried over into some of the terms we use in describing details of the Bible in our English translations. The title "The Magnificat" is Latin for "The Exultation". You may recognize from the word our English word "Magnificent". No doubt, what Mary sings and Who she sings about is the one who is God, coming through her womb as a virgin born human being.
The second song in Luke's record is the song of Zacharias called "The Benedictus" (meaning blessed). Perhaps you have heard of an opening prayer where the persons asks for God's blessing on a given event as being called a "benediction". Like the first, the meaning is profound. Zacharias is praising God for his sending of the forerunner through he and his wife, Elizabeth. No doubt, the events surrounding the Savior's coming into the world were indeed blessed!
Some further reflections on these songs can prove beneficial in preparing our hearts and minds for Christmas day. First, we can note three things about Mary's song in Luke 1:46-56:
1. The Savior in her womb is personally meaningful
Notice how often Mary uses the words "my" or "me" in 1:46-49. Mary sees the profound significance of Christ's coming for her own life. She has embraced everything spoken to her by the angel. She has taken God at His word and is overjoyed at the fact that in her womb is the Living word.
2. The Savior in her womb is powerfully Mighty
Mary rehearses how this One in her womb Pre-existed as the God of glory throughout the history of the world in Luke 1:50-53. He is Sovereign ruler over the nations. (Psalm 2). He is God and God alone and will not share His glory with any other. He knows how to deliver His people. These ideas flow from Mary's lips as the Holy Spirit gives her utterance.
3. The Savior in her womb is prophecy's fulfillment
In Luke 1:54-55 Mary is thinking of all the times God promised and predicted the coming of Messiah. From Abraham down to Malachi, God kept revealing how the Promise of Salvation would one day become the Person of salvation, born in due time. For Mary, the literal fulfillment of that truth was now living inside of her.
In reflecting on Mary's song, we can also glean some remarkable insights from the Wonder of the Benedictus as conveyed by Zechariah. With Mary praising the wonder of Christ's soon birth, Zechariah too is praising God for the fact of the forerunner - John. With only 6 months difference between their births, God's perfect timing was truly incredible. This song is full of statements regarding God's promises and prophecies about salvation, redemption and the Light of Hope that is seen in the coming of Messiah. The one who would announce that coming is spoken of in scriptures such as Malachi 4 and Isaiah 40. Truly the power of worship was declaring that the plan of God in Heaven was getting ready to touch down here on earth.
As we are hours away from Christmas day, it is certain that among children and adults alike, the anticipation is building. When we read these songs in Luke's Gospel, we can see how music was used by God in conjunction with the proclamation of His Word to prepare the people for the arrival of the glory of His Son in human flesh. May we have excitement as we look forward to singing God's praises and meditating on His Word this Advent season and in preparation for Christmas.