We have a list on our fridge. It’s a list that has helped preserve my sanity over many long January school holidays. It’s called the ‘what to do if you are bored’ list.
On our list, between ‘try on all your clothes to see what still fits’ and ‘weed the garden’ (not that anyone has ever chosen that, but it’s worth a go), is this brilliant boredom buster: ‘write a song’. If you’re bored and you know it, write a song!
I guess most people that write songs don’t usually do it out of boredom. Usually, songs are composed because people have something to say, a message they wish to express. Whether it’s missing home, falling in love, being glad it’s Friday, or that they’re never, ever, ever getting back together, it can all be captured in a song.
If you flick through your copy of the ‘Jewish National Hymn Book’ you’ll see that the Israelites understood this. Yes, you probably do have a copy; it’s called the book of Psalms. Psalms is a collection of 150 songs that cover the full range of human emotions and experience. From walking though the valley of the shadow of death, to begging God to pour out his wrath on the enemy, to songs of military triumph, thanksgiving and praise, it’s all in there—and everything in between.
There are times, it seems, when a song can help. Rob Bell puts it like this, ‘Sometimes you need a scientist, and sometimes you need a song.’ There are times when logic and reason and being rational and level-headed just don’t cut it. There are times when formulas and arguments and words alone aren’t enough. In these times, a song can express what the heart wants to say.
Kate Salisbury says that as we approach the divine, our ‘prose peters out into poetry, our speech peters out and we begin to sing’. That’s how it seems to have been for many people in the Bible. In response to having been delivered, or having a prayer answered, or somehow having encountered God in a special way, they burst into song.
Luke’s infancy narrative is a prime example of this. In Luke chapters one and two, we find four songs. They belong to Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the three songs in Luke’s account of Christmas that were sung by people. So let’s begin with Mary’s song, known as ‘the Magnificat’.
Mary wasn’t the only female biblical figure to sing praises to God. She stands in good company with Hannah, Miriam and Deborah, who also praised God in song (1 Samuel 2, Exodus 15, Judges 5). But what motivated Mary to praise God in this way? Let’s take a look at the back story to Mary’s song.
Prior to this song, Luke tells us that Mary received a surprising visit from the angel, Gabriel. He told her that by the Holy Spirit she would conceive a child who would be called ‘Son of the Most High’ and who would rule on David’s throne forever (Luke 1:32-33). This was quite a day! And no doubt it was quite a mess that followed. To be pregnant and unmarried was shameful enough, but to claim that she was pregnant by God was pretty out there!
Mary doesn’t sing yet. I think she needed time. She needed to adjust, to process it all. She needed to go on a bit of a journey, which she did. Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
It was a four-day journey to Elizabeth’s home, and you can do a lot of thinking in four days. Mary didn’t burst into song immediately after Gabriel had given her the news, but by the time Elizabeth greeted her, something had changed.
Maybe Mary had done some reflecting. Maybe the journey had changed her perspective. Mary, like most of us, didn’t immediately thank God for the crisis he’d brought into her life. It was a journey to get to that point. As an old proverb says, ‘struggle is the midwife to our joy.’ Mary came to see that God himself had given her a significant part is his big story. Her part wasn’t going to be easy, but Mary could embrace it after she’d come to terms with who she was and who God was. It’s then that she sings.
In ancient Jewish culture, much emphasis was placed on memorising scriptures. Boys were encouraged to have memorised the whole Torah by the age of 12, while the psalms were considered more appropriate for girls to learn. It’s not surprising, then, that Mary’s song oozes language and imagery from the Old Testament and particularly from the Psalms (compare her song with Psalm 103:17).
Mary’s song can be divided into three sections: an introduction, followed by two strophes. Mary’s introduction is a declaration that she will praise God. She sings:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. (Luke 1:46–47)
The Magnificat uses the technique of ancient Jewish poets: parallelisms. What that means is that the first line makes a statement and the second line restates it to reinforce and bring clarity to it. So, ‘my soul’ in line one is paralleled by ‘my spirit’ in line two. ‘Glorifies’ is reinforced by ‘rejoices’, and ‘God’ is used to restate ‘Lord’. Essentially, Mary begins by saying the same thing twice to make her point. From deep within her, she chooses to praise God.
But, as well as running in parallel to line one, line two gives the reader important additional information. It adds the words ‘my Saviour’. This suggests Mary knew she needed a Saviour. It hints that that she is aware of her own insignificance. She knows she is helpless and dependant on God to save her.
This song gets its name from the opening words of its Latin translation. The word ‘magnificat’, which the New International Version translates as ‘glorifies’, could also be translated ‘magnifies’. Mary’s desire was to enlarge God, not herself.
Mary continues on into the first strophe, where she begins to explain why she is praising God:
… for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me
—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation. (Luke 1:48–50)
Here, Mary gives two reasons for praising God. Firstly, because of whom God is. She acknowledges three of God’s attributes: his might, holiness and mercy. But she takes it further, for this great God has chosen to use her. This is the second reason for Mary’s praise: the fact that God even knew her name was mind blowing, but that he would use her, a nobody, for his eternal purposes was just too much!
Mary’s gratitude permeates her song. She is saying, ‘God is the source of all I have’. She knows she has done nothing to deserve the privilege God has given her. Her humility contrasts with God’s greatness. She will be called ‘blessed’ only because of God’s greatness working in her.
In the second strophe, the emphasis changes from what God had done for Mary to what God had done for others, and from God’s attributes to his actions. It reads:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors. (Luke 1:51–55)
Mary’s words remind us that God is active. He performs, he scatters, he brings down and lifts up, he sends, he helps, he remembers, and he promises. Here, we find a third reason to praise God. Mary gives praise because God is not an inactive god sitting far off at a distance. Rather, he is the God who intervenes and acts directly in people’s lives.
Those actions for which Mary was praising God were actions that had been directed to the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites. She was looking back and remembering what God had done in the past for others and thanking God for that. Mary saw that what God was doing in her was a continuation of his mercy to Abraham. Through her, the promises God made to Abraham would be fulfilled.
Mary had a lot to praise God for. For who He was. And for what He’d done.