I hate to admit it, but I almost never enjoy new Christmas albums. I don’t want to hear my favorite old Christmas carols jazzed up, or rocked up, or countrified, or (especially) schmaltzified. So, when I heard on the radio that jazz musician, Carla Bley has come out with a new Christmas album, I was prepared to dislike it. I didn’t.
The reporter called her treatment of the songs, starting with “O Holy Night” “almost reverential.” (NPR, ATC, Dec. 17, 2009) The amazing thing is that Ms. Bley is not a Christian and does not celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless Christmas music speaks to her. She grew up in a Christian home; the music connects with her in a deep way, so she plays them without schmaltz.
Christmas = Music
Christmas cannot help but be filled with music (can you imagine a Christmas without music?). Didn’t the Christmas concert here last week put you in the proper frame of mind for Christmas? It started with music: the angel choirs sang their famous “gloria in excelsis deo” to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born. That is the song most of us think of as the biblical Christmas song, it was not the first one. Rather Mary’s song starts off the music of Christmas.
I love this scene we read from Luke. Here are these two, unlikely, pregnant women together: one, Elizabeth should have been too old to have a child; she had been barren all her life. The other, Mary, was not yet married, and in fact, still a virgin; and yet here they are, relatives, belonging to two different generations, soon to give birth to boys who will begin a new generation together.
This is a scene of great joy. Elizabeth, in her sixth month of pregnancy, welcomes her young relative Mary, and as she does, her unborn baby leaps for joy in her womb. She blurts out a three-fold blessing:
42“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb… 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary Sings (like Hannah)
Immediately, Mary bursts forth into her Christmas song,
46“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
As her song continues, it takes an unexpected path. This song is supposed to be a “rejoice in the future” song. It’s supposed to be about things that are about to happen but that have not yet happened – like the birth of Jesus. But instead, Mary’s song lives in the past. It’s a song of praise to God for what he has already done.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
About the past?
Why is the song of the future all about the past? Mary understood well what theologian Fred Craddock says, about this text: “to speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.” (Craddock, Luke, 30)
What does Mary know that God has done? Mary knows that God has given barren Sarah and her elderly husband Abraham a son; and with him, hope that His promise had not failed. “To speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.”
What has God done? God, Mary knows, has brought down the mighty Pharaoh from his throne and lifted up the lowly Hebrew slaves, liberating them, and leading them into the land of Promise. “To speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.”
What has God done? God has given barren Hannah a child, Samuel. Hannah praised God in song for his amazing ability to reverse the fortunes of the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. Hannah’s song became the melody that Mary then made into her song. “To speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.”
What has God done lately Mary? Given a soon-to-be-born son to the barren Elizabeth and her elderly husband Zechariah, a son named John, whose birth will mark the beginning of a new work of God in the world.
The future: Jesus
And now, God has given Mary a soon-to-be-born son who will be named Jesus, for he will save, liberate, rescue his people. God does again what God has done before: bring the promise that seemed dead and hopeless back to life.
And so with past tense verbs Mary forecasts the future. God will bring a new set of reversals of fortune into being, just as Hannah’s song announced so long ago. Mary sings:
51…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
If King Herod had heard Mary singing about the proud-rich on their thrones he would have recognized that his own image was in that bull’s eye; he would not have been amused. Mary could have gotten killed for singing that reversal-of-fortunes song. Throughout the history of the world, and also today, the lowly and hungry are able to stay alive, so long as they are content to stay lowly and hungry.
Unless… unless God is going to do again what he has done before. Unless God is going to bring about the Mother of all reversals of fortunes. And that is exactly what Mary sings about.
This song is not just verse-two about Moses, besting Pharaoh, as if now, king Herod gets what Pharaoh got. Mary sings a song that modulates into an entirely different key. Her song has a massive crescendo, a triple-forte at the finale. Her song is not about another course-correction; rather, her song sings of a conclusion.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary’s song is about the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham and to his descendants, and the new thing God is doing which lasts forever. This is what it has all been building up to for so long. This is the show stopper!
But it all sounds too good to be true, right? Look around: the proud don’t seem to be very scattered in their thoughts, the rich seem to still be on their thrones (opening their massive Christmas bonuses), the lowly still have not been lifted up; the hungry are still searching for their next meal.
This is where the past, present and future meet. We know what God has done in the past – we have all heard the story of lowly, hungry Hebrew slaves, set free, and of mighty, proud Pharaoh, brought low. And, we can all imagine a future in which all the injustices we see around us are reversed, when finally the hungry are filled with good things, and the lowly lifted up. But where does that leave us today?
The Advent Question
It leaves us here in Advent with one simple question: will we sing the songs of Christmas as they are meant to be sung? Will we join Mary and sing her song? Will we sing her song without rockifying, countryfyieng, schmaltzing or trivializing it?
To sing Mary’s song is to cast our lot in with those who believe that through Jesus, God is doing again, in a final conclusive way, what he has done before. To sing Mary’s song is to identify with the lowly and the hungry, the despised, the outcast, the neglected and the shunned. To sing Mary’s song is to believe that the Mother of all reversals of fortune is in process right now.
To sing Mary’s song is to “magnify the Lord” by celebrating his defining characteristic: mercy
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
To sing Mary’s Christmas song is to become, like her, instruments of God’s mercy. It means mercifully bearing the cup of cold water in his name; mercifully calling people whom we do not know “neighbor.” To sing Mary’s song means to rejoice with those who rejoice, and also to weep with mercy for those who weep – because they cannot afford a doctor, or a prescription, or an operation; because their home owner’s insurance policy’s price quadrupled and they are on a fixed income, because they do not know that the song of Christmas, the mercy of God is for them.
We know! We believe that what God has done in the past he is now doing again – only in an even greater way. We believe in his mercy. With Mary, we will sing!