To the reader: In this series, Caleb Friedeman explores some of the unique dimensions of Luke’s Christmas story. The purpose of this series is to provide fodder for fresh preaching, teaching, and application of Luke’s birth narrative, so please, borrow at will. See here for parts one and two.
Not a Tame Christmas
One of my favorite passages in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the moment that Lucy discovers that Aslan the King is not a man, but a Lion. “Then isn’t he safe?” Lucy asks. “Safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Lewis here puts a finger on an impulse many of us have felt: the urge to try to domesticate God and fit him into our own expectations. I wonder if during the Advent season we in the Church are not guilty of taming the incarnation and its implications for our lives. Think about the songs we sing:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright…
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
Both of these classics emphasize the calm and peace that the baby Jesus brings. This is all well and good (though I’m not so sure about that part about Jesus not crying). However, it is only one side of the coin. I imagine that if we were to study the most popular Christmas hymns alongside the Christmas stories themselves, we would find that we tend to highlight the warm and fuzzy side of Christmas much more than the gospel writers do, and to minimize the world-shaking significance of the incarnation.
Of course, there are also some notable exceptions, like this bit from “O Holy Night”:
Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease
Here, the peace of the gospel is linked with Jesus’ concrete actions of freeing slaves and ending oppression. Unfortunately, lyrics like this are far too rare in Christmas songs, even hymns. We tend to accentuate the comforts of Christmas (thereby justifying our own comfort) yet ignore the holy discomfort that permeates the Christmas stories themselves. However, Luke—if we listen to him—will not allow us to tame Christmas in this way.
Although Mary’s exclamation of praise—often termed the “Magnificat” for its first word in the Latin Vulgate—in Luke 1:46–55 is technically not a song, it does read much like a psalm and provides an interesting contrast to many of our modern Christmas songs. Before we take a look at the Magnificat itself, let’s remind ourselves of where we are in the narrative:
When the angel Gabriel first tells Mary that she will bear a Davidic king, she asks him how such a thing could be, since she is a virgin. Gabriel replies (among other things) that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, but then mentions that Mary’s relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son (i.e., John) in her old age, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). In keeping with the OT annunciation pattern we discussed in the first part of this series, Elizabeth’s pregnancy seems to function as a sign for Mary that guarantees the validity of God’s promise.
Not surprisingly, Mary takes a road trip to see her pregnant relative. Luke tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, “the baby leaped in her womb” (1:41). Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary for believing what God had spoken.
Filled with joy that God has confirmed his promise through Elizabeth, Mary exclaims:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices greatly over God my Savior,
for he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For look—from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the mighty one has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for generations and generations
toward those who fear him.
He has done mighty things by his arm,
he has scattered those who are proud
in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down rulers from thrones
and has lifted up the humble,
he has filled the hungry full of good things
and has sent the rich out empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
so as to remember mercy
even as he said to our fathers,
for Abraham and his offspring forever.
Mary’s words point backward to God’s acts of faithfulness in the past, but they also point forward to what Jesus’ birth will mean. This exclamation of praise is shot through with echoes of the OT—prayers by Hannah and Leah, as well as Deuteronomy and a number of psalms all make an appearance.
What is important for our purposes, however, is how different Mary’s exclamation of praise—especially the latter half—is from the our normal Christmas lyrics. Mary speaks of God
-scattering the proud
-bringing down the mighty
-lifting up the humble
-filling the hungry
-sending away the rich
This script is, to say the least, a far cry from “Silent Night.” Mary speaks of very this-worldly social and political reversals that she sees in what God has done to bring his Messiah to earth: The proud get humbled, the mighty get cut down to size, the humble get dignified, the hungry get filled, and the rich get cleaned out.
In what world?
In this one, says Luke.
For Mary and Luke, Jesus’ birth means peace on earth (2:14), but this peace comes precisely because God is turning this world upside down.
Jesus, the Church, and the Upside-down World
Jesus launches this new world order—he calls it God’s kingdom—in his own ministry. At the outset, Jesus declares that the Spirit has anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, etc. Over and over again in Luke, Jesus preaches, heals, casts out demons, and reorients finances and lifestyles (e.g., Zacchaeus).
This world-changing ministry continues in the life of Jesus’ Church. Even the unbelievers can’t help but notice: When Paul preaches in and persuades many in Thessalonica, a mob led by the Jews drags some of the Christians before the authorities and cries out, “These men who have turned the world upside down are also here…and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, since they say there is another king, Jesus.” There is both a lie and a truth here. On the one hand, the Christians are not rebelling against Caesar, at least in not the way the mob is saying. On the other hand, the Christians are indeed declaring that there is a King who is above even Caesar, and this conviction has apparently turned the world upside down.
Mary’s Magnificat and Why It Matters
Mary’s exclamation of praise is important because it reminds us of something we are apt to forget: Christmas is about God turning the world upside down. Yes, it is about peace. Yes, it is about comfort. But peace and comfort come as God overturns the world and its values through his Spirit-filled Son and Church. This is, of course, a process, and it will not be complete until God ushers in the new heavens and new earth. On that day, when God has turned all things on their head, we will at last find the world right side up.
How do we live out such a Christmas? I offer the following:
- Christmas is not tame. We must not sentimentalize Christmas into something quiet and domesticated that is merely to be observed and appreciated. Rather, the incarnation means that God is turning the world upside down—i.e., right side up. Advent should remind us of this reversal and challenge us to use the power we have been granted to participate in God’s ongoing work of redeeming the world.
- Turn your Christmas upside down. Ironically, it is difficult to think of a Western holiday that collides more with Mary’s Magnificat than Christmas: the materialism and self-focus contrast directly with the world Mary speaks of in which the proud and humble, rich and poor are all radically transformed. One of the ways that my family has found to turn our Christmas upside down in recent years has been to minimize the number of gifts we give (and therefore receive) and to give more to kingdom work. Here’s how it looks for us: Instead of each sibling buying a gift for the others, we draw names and buy one larger gift for one person, and then donate the amount that we spent to a kingdom cause (we try to all pick the same one each year). Other ways to turn your Christmas upside down might include caroling at a nursing home, sponsoring a child in need through Angel Tree, etc. Whatever way you choose, know that as you allow God to turn your Christmas upside down, you will find it—paradoxically—the right way up.
Questions for further study:
- What connections can you find between Mary’s Magnificat and the rest of Luke-Acts?
- How does the rest of Luke-Acts shape the way that we understand the socio-political reversals that Mary speaks of? In Jesus’ kingdom, how will such things take place?
- What Christmas songs and/or liturgy can you find that resonate with the Magnificat? Consider incorporating these into your worship both at Advent and year-round. (If you can’t think of any, write some or encourage your artistic friends to do so!)