Christmas is a time of singing, and of reading the Christmas story, which is full of song. In the first two chapters of Luke, there are four songs that are sung, which help tell the story of Jesus and his birth.
We hear from Mary, from Zacharias, from angels and from Simeon. They are not really songs, so much as poems (and prophecies), but I imagine them as songs, and they are full of amazement and joy, looking forward to what God will do, but also looking back at what God has done. Each of these songs has a different, distinct tune, but they all have the same tone, and they all help tell the same story – the Christmas story, in other words, the story of God the one and true King coming to save his people and rule over the whole world.
Mary sings her song (which I have written about before) after she hears the news that she is going to give birth to a baby, in Luke 1:46-55. In the first part, she expresses a number of things that make sense, given the context. She has just heard from God that she has been chosen among all women to give birth to Jesus, and she is aware of how great a blessing this is for her. She is also aware of the fact that she has done nothing to deserve this great honor. The only reason she was chosen, instead of someone else, is because God “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” and because, “His mercy extends to those who fear him” (Luke 1:47, 50 NIV).
She was obviously happy and excited, as well as amazed and probably a bit confused. Those are all emotions that any woman might feel when given the news that they are with child, under any circumstances. But in the next part of her song (vv. 51-55), Mary starts saying things that seem totally out of place. She begins to sing of the strength of God, and how he has thrown kings from their thrones, crushed the proud and sent the rich away empty-handed!
This isn’t really a normal reaction to finding out that you are pregnant. Pickles and ice cream is one thing, but Mary is saying things here that are downright subversive. Also, they don’t make any sense. She hears that she will give birth to a child, and she starts talking about justice and revolution, and we are left with the question: what does a baby have to do with any of this?
Of course, we all know that her reaction did make sense when you consider the circumstances she was living in. She was under the rule of a foreign occupying power, the Roman Empire, and their local puppet-leaders. She and her people were oppressed, and therefore they had oppressors. So when she spoke of God who is capable of dealing with the kings and the proud and the rich, she was not speaking in abstract terms. It was something that was very real for her, something that mattered.
Her reaction also makes sense when you consider that she knew the baby she carried was not just any baby. He was special. And she knew this because the angel Gabriel told her. He said that her son would “be called the Son of the Most High” and would reign “on the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33 NIV). It was impossible for her to miss the meaning here – she knew that her son would be king, and not just any king, but the king of kings.
There was only one problem. There was already a king of kings. Caesar Augustus, the head of the Roman Empire, was ruler of the whole world. He was able to issue decrees that would impact the lives of people throughout the vast empire. He could wake up one morning and declare that everyone had to register in a census, and it became law. That is what sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-5), and that is why Jesus was born in a manger, among animals. The king of the world was able to move people around like animals with his words. Jesus came as king, but he was born in a manger, because there was no room for him. There was no room for another king, because there was already a king sitting on the throne. In order for Jesus to reign, things would have to change, because there can only be one king.
In the words of Tom Wright, “The opening of Luke 2, in other words, isn’t simply a chronological note or a bit of incidental history. Augustus, at the height of his power and glory in Rome, signs a decree, and far away, off at the other end of his empire, a baby is born in the place where David’s son ought to be born. Augustus’s signature on the decree was Rome signing the ultimate death warrant for its classic pagan power. We should not be surprised when, at the end of Luke’s second volume, we find Paul in Rome, announcing God as king and Jesus as Lord right under Caesar’s nose ‘with all boldness, and with no one stopping him’ (Acts 28:31).”
Looking at Mary’s song, there are things which bring to mind another song in the Bible sung by a woman – the song of Deborah. In Judges 5:2-31, Deborah sings of God’s victory over the Jabin, the Canaanite king and his commander Sisera, who were trying to destroy Israel. Like in Mary’s song, the king is defeated and the proud humbled. It is also interesting that in Deborah’s song, two women feature most prominently, and are most directly responsible for the victory. Deborah united the people and was their brave leader, and Jael took care of Sisera with a tent peg.
This heroic portrayal of these woman is interesting, especially since women were (and are) often considered weaker than men. They are thought of as too submissive, unable to fight, and unable to rise up against their oppressors. Unable, perhaps, to be used by God. But God chose to use Deborah and Jael, just as he chose to use Mary, because they recognized that he is the true king. Jabin, Caesar and any others are just impostors. They relied on God’s strength, not on their own, and that is why God was able to use them. The true king does not rely on outward displays of strength (which really only betray insecurity). The true king does not move people around with his words. He creates worlds with his words. And the true king came to earth in the form of a baby, the most helpless, defenseless being alive. And he was born in a manger, to a poor family far from home and without a place to stay.
The second song in the Christmas story is actually a prophecy by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. It is given by Zacharias once his son is born, in Luke 1:67-79. When the angel told him that his wife would have a baby, his mouth was closed, and it remained closed for a long time. He wasn’t able to speak for months, so it is interesting to see that almost as soon as he is able to speak again, this song is given. It represents, perhaps, some of the thoughts he had throughout his wife’s pregnancy which he wasn’t able to express.
Just like Mary, Zacharias begins his song saying things that do not make sense unless we understand the context in which they were said. He starts talking about the redemption of his people (v. 68), their salvation from their enemies (v. 71) and the oath given to Abraham (v. 73). Zacharias was no doubt overjoyed at the birth of his son, especially since he and his wife Elizabeth had been unable to have a child in their youth. Now in their old age God had done the impossible. He had removed their reproach (Luke 1:25), and it certainly must have seemed like a salvation. But he isn’t talking about his own personal salvation here, he is talking about the salvation of his people. He is speaking for the community and not only for himself. This is obviously best understood like Mary’s song, in the context of the occupation and ongoing exile of the people of Israel. However, it should also be understood in another light.
What happened to Zacharias echoes the story of Samson’s birth in Judges 13. Samson’s parents were also unable to bear children, and they also received a heavenly visitor who told them that they would have a son, and that he would be special. “No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” Judges 13:5 NIV). The communal aspect is here as well. And say what you like about Samson, one thing is true, he did take out a lot of Philistines.
Similarly, Samuel’s mother Hannah was also barren, and she prayed to God (in bitterness of soul) that if he would give her a son, she would “give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (1 Samuel 1:11 NIV). Samuel was born, and his life was dedicated to serving God and guiding the people of Israel. Incidentally, in response to his birth, Hannah sang a song, (1 Samuel 2:1-10) which was actually not a song but a prayer, and which is thematically very similar to Mary’s song. It speaks of justice and feeding the hungry, and raising up those who are low and bringing down those who are on high. It also speaks of the barren giving birth as an image of restoration, “She who was barren has borne seven children” (1 Samuel 2:5 NIV), but ultimately acknowledges the sovereignty of God in all things, “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6 NIV).
So what Zacharias went through, and what he said in his song actually makes sense when seen as a part of a tradition. God has a long tradition of redeeming those who have lived under the reproach of society, and of calling out those who would be dedicated to his service and the service of his people. Zacharias and Elizabeth were able to cast off the label of “barren” and their son was called to serve God and Israel even before he was born. The angel told Zacharias that he would have a son, and that “He is never to take wine or other fermented drinks, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God” (Luke 115-16).
In his song, Zacharias said that God would rescue his people from their enemies, so that they would be able to serve him without fear (Luke 1:74). This recalls the Exodus story, when God spoke those immortal words to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” We all remember that phrase, as we ought to. It was powerful then and it is powerful now. However, we forget what God continued to say immediately after it. He said, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1 NIV). It was never intended to be freedom for freedom’s sake, it was freedom with a purpose. It was the freedom to serve the one true God, the one true king.
The angels sing the shortest song in the Christmas story. It was given to the shepherds who were watching their flock out in the fields at night. An angel of the Lord came to them and told them the news, the “good tidings of great joy,” that in Bethlehem their savior was born. Then the whole sky filled with angels, and they sang their song, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 NKJV). It was a small song but it has big implications. It is interesting to note that when the angel brought this good news, he said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10 NKJV). The emphasis here is on all people. However, in other translations, we see the angel saying something far more limited. For example in the New International Version, he says, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” The difference between “all people” and “all the people” is only one word, but it holds the whole world in its balance. It comes down to a question of the universal and the particular.
I am sure that Greek scholars would argue that one translation is right and the other wrong, and I am not foolish enough to argue with them on this point. But it seems to me that in one sense, both translations are actually right. Jesus came to save his people in that time and in that place and in that particular situation. But he also came to save all people, in all places and at all times. The coming of Christ was God’s response to the crying out of his people at that time and for all time. The person of Christ was the embodiment of the particular and the universal. He was God the all knowing, all powerful, the timeless and eternal in the body of a person. This is the radical and paradoxical meaning of the incarnation – God incarnate.
The fact that this message was given to the shepherds is also significant, and reflects this paradox in another way. For although the shepherds may have been a part of the people of Israel, they were certainly on the margins of society. They were a part of the people, but just barely. The role shepherds play in society hasn’t changed much since the birth of Jesus. We can imagine a familiar dynamic here – the shepherds were nomadic or semi-nomadic herders who were transient, and probably seen as dangerous and undomesticated by the city dwellers and agriculturalists. This is true throughout the world, from the Bedouin in Israel and other counties in the Middle East, to the Fulani in West Africa (and, of course, cowboys in the Old West).
Even though Israel’s roots were in this type of nomadic, shepherding lifestyle, going all the way back to Abraham, they had long since settled in and probably looked on the nomads with distrust and disdain. We shouldn’t forget that the shepherds were not only watching their flocks in the fields at night, that is where they lived (Luke 2:8). Also, it is safe to say that the flocks they watched over probably weren’t even theirs. They were probably hired hands, who braved the cold nights with the sheep, while the owners of the sheep were warm in their beds. There is no scriptural evidence for this of course, but it would fit with the pattern that is often seen with nomadic people throughout the world. This brings to mind a truth that is easy to forget – owning sheep does not make you a shepherd, just like having a cowboy hat does not make you a cowboy.
When the angel spoke and said that his message was one that would bring joy to all people, he meant everyone, rich and poor, important and unimportant. Nobody was excluded, and the fact that the shepherds received the news before everyone else is proof of this. Not only that, but they were given the important task of delivering the message to others. It is safe to assume that there were probably some (or many) that didn’t believe their message because of who they were. This reminds me of what Chesterton wrote regarding the belief in miracles. “You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism – the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.”
Those who didn’t believe them are the ones who lost out. As for the shepherds, they were only reporting on what was evident to anyone who happened to be looking. After all, the angels filled the whole sky. Their song was not given in secret. If those who slept through the song didn’t believe, it was because they did not see, and if they did not see, it is because they were not looking. Even the Magi were able to find Jesus by following a star, though, according to T. S. Eliot, they journeyed the whole way with “voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.”
Now we come to the last song – the song of Simeon. This song was given after the birth of Jesus, when he was taken for the first time to the Temple, on the 8th day, in order to be circumcised. This ceremony was to mark his belonging to the people of Israel, and he was taken by his parents, who crossed paths with Simeon, an old man who was at the Temple waiting. He was waiting, just like all of Israel. Waiting for God’s salvation. But he had received a special promise. God told him that he would not die before seeing the salvation of Israel. He knew that God would keep his word, but he also knew that he was very old and would not live much longer. He saw Jesus, took him in his arms and sang his song (Luke 2:21-35).
He begins by saying to God, “now you may dismiss your servant in peace,” (v. 29 NIV). He has been waiting for so long, and now that he has seen, he is ready to go. He is ready to die. It seems almost as if he is asking to die, like he is asking God to take him. There are others in the Bible who asked God to take them, Elijah for example, when he was hiding in the desert outside of Beer Sheva (1 Kings 19:4). That was different though – Elijah was speaking through pain and frustration, anger and fear. After the great victory on Mount Carmel, he found himself on the run, defeated and in danger. He spoke through resignation, kind of like the author of Psalm 90, who wrote,
“We finish our years like a sigh.
The days of our lives are seventy years;
And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,
Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:9-10 NKJV).
Few poets and no philosophers have ever managed to capture the dejection and sense of meaninglessness contained in these few lines. These are lines an existentialist would envy and wish they had thought of first. The conclusion drawn here, that life is hardship and difficulty and doesn’t even last that long, is only one step away from saying, “God, you might as well take me now.”
Some have seen this same sort of cynical abandonment of hope (as well as anti-Semitism) in T. S. Eliot’s reworking of Simeon’s song, A Song for Simeon. The argument is that Simeon saw God’s salvation, but saw himself excluded from it, since he and the rest of the Jewish people would not accept Jesus as Messiah. Finally, Simeon embraces death at the end of Eliot’s poem by saying,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.
I don’t see the cynicism, or anti-Semitism, in either Eliot’s text or the original. In defending Eliot against this specific charge of anti-Semitism, James Wood doesn’t see it either. He writes, “Simeon welcomes death not because his life is death but because his life has been gloriously completed, messianically irradiated.” That seems right to me. It is like he is saying, “I can go in peace because I have seen the salvation of God.” He is full and content, and ready to go home. Simeon was able to see because God gave him a vision. Everyone else saw a little baby, but Simeon saw what the baby would become and what he would accomplish. He saw that salvation had come, even though the situation had not yet changed. The Romans and corrupt Herodians still ruled over them. The world was still full of evil and injustice. But he had peace because God had allowed him to see past all of that, to see that the Kingdom of God had been established on earth. He saw that kingdom come had come.
This peek into the Promised Land obviously recalls Moses, perched on Mt. Nebo. He didn’t make it in, but he saw in, and sometimes to see is enough. It also recalls others who have had a great vision but have not lived long enough to see it accomplished. Martin Luther King Jr. is an obvious example, and so is Nelson Mandela. They both saw a vision of peace and reconciliation in their societies which were saturated with violence, anger, resentment and fear. They saw this vision even though there was little to no evidence of it, and managed to convey it to others. They saw the vision, and held onto it, even though it had still not been realized when they died, and even though it has still not been realized now that they are gone. But they died with peace, because they had seen the vision.
The vision has not been realized because, although the kingdom was established, there remains much work to be done. The second time John the Baptist came before Jesus (the first was in birth), he spoke as the voice crying in the wilderness that was foreseen by Isaiah. The voice that would “Prepare the ways of the LORD; make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth,” (Luke 3:4-6 NKJV).
It is hard work, preparing the way for the king. Raising up the valleys and bringing down the mountains. Straightening out what is crooked. That is the work of the kingdom that has come, but it is also the inevitable result of the arrival of the king. We participate in the work of the kingdom, even though we know that we can only begin the work. We cannot finish it. Not alone. Only the king can finish the work, and he will. In the meantime we continue to sing our songs, songs of the king that has come and is coming.
 Tom Wright, How God Became King, Getting to the Heart of the Gospels (Great Britain, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 2012) pg. 136-137.
 Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, Image Books: 1959) pg. 150.
 James Wood, The Broken Estate, Essays on Literature and Belief (New York, The Modern Library: 2000) pg. 153.