The First Christmas Song:
A Study of Mary’s Magnificat
Ahh…the sounds of the season—children laughing, the ripping of wrapping paper, sleigh bells ringing and choirs of carolers. The familiar songs and hymns of this time of year add to our joy and wonder as we reflect on the birth of Jesus, the Son of God.
In Luke 1:46-55, we find the Spirit-filled words of Mary, the mother of Jesus expressing the very first Christmas hymn The Magnificat, and we hear the beauty of her prose.
However, there is much more to Mary’s song than her joy of God’s intervention in her life. Upon a closer examination, we catch a glimpse of Mary’s deep awareness and knowledge of her Lord. And through the inspired words of her song, the God of history is revealed culminating in His compassion for the whole world by sending His Christmas gift wrapped up in a manger.
The word magnificat used today in Christmas services is taken from Latin, meaning “to glorify or to magnify.” This is the word Mary used to initiate her praise in response to God’s revelation that she was to deliver the long-awaited Messiah of the nation of Israel, and the Savior of the world.
Her praise countered the expected shame of an unmarried, albeit engaged, pregnant girl. In Jewish society she would have been ostracized, although it was Israel’s very God who brought about her unfavorable social predicament.
Mary’s faith and obedience as a servant of God gave her strength she would need to endure such communal hostility; not only to embrace the favor of her Master, but to respond with sincere joy and adoration.
Mary drew deep from the well of her knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, to include references from the books of Moses, the prophets and the writings of Israel, in her response to God.
Her words reflected a humble spirit in the midst of the great God of Israel who did mighty things for His people. Throughout the magnificat, Mary’s thoughts gradually widened from God’s goodness to herself, to the reversal of the fortunes of people in this life and the fulfillment of the promises He made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in bringing the long awaited Messiah.
Mary considered her lowly state and called herself the handmaiden, or servant, of the Lord. The word handmaiden is significant for it was intentionally borrowed from another song of praise in the Scriptures sung by Hannah a millennium earlier recorded in 1 Samuel 2.
Like Mary, Hannah was also a humble woman, surrounded by a difficult social circumstance that God brought about for her. However, where the Lord had opened Mary’s womb as an unwed teenager, He had closed Hannah’s womb for many years in marriage.
In fact, she was almost past the point of child-bearing age. The torment from her rival Penninah was unbearable. She lived a life of sorrow and longing, until she made a vow to the Lord to dedicate her first child for His service.
Scripture tells us that Hannah received a blessing from Eli the priest at the tabernacle in Shiloh, and she rejoiced. Although her circumstances had not yet changed on the outside, Hannah believed that God would bring about the child she prayed for, and in faith, she praised the Lord with her song recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.
Hannah’s song began with her response to her own situation and then moved beyond herself, to who God is and what He did for His people, paralleling the same themes found in Mary’s song. Her praise included God’s “raising the poor from the dust,” and “giving strength to his king.” However, in the time of Hannah, Israel had no king. Hannah’s Spirit-filled words prophesized about the coming King of Israel who would eventually fulfill Israel’s longing for a Messiah, a Deliverer for the downtrodden.
Although separated by 1,000 years of history, both Hannah and Mary were called to give up their first born sons to the Lord, a painful experience which would lead to a joyous outcome. Both of their sons would move God’s plan for humanity into its next phase.
In the life of Hannah, God gave her a son named Samuel, who she gave up to the service of God in the tabernacle under Eli the priest. Samuel became a priest, a prophet and Israel’s last judge who anointed the first two kings of Israel. In the life of Mary, God provided His very own Son, who would take on the sins of the world, and Mary watched, unable to save Him from His destiny of His earthly rejection and death on a cross.
However, Jesus defeated death in glorious resurrection, paid for sins in full, and ensured eternal salvation for believers through his work on the cross.
This Christmas, as you listen to the music of the season, take some time to reflect on your own soul. Do you magnify the Lord in all circumstances? Read and ponder the songs of both Hannah and Mary which honor God and confess complete trust in His character and provision.
As Hannah and Mary lived obscure but obedient lives, God did miraculous things not only for them, but for the nation of Israel and the whole world. Both songs show that God uses even the lowly in society to accomplish His ultimate purpose for mankind.
Both songs proclaim that God is compassionate and just. Humbleness and complete dependence in God alone were the precursors of God’s work in the lives of these women of Israel. The same is true today for all believers.
True power in the world is to be found not in one’s position in society, but in one’s posture before God. It is a strange and wonderful privilege that we can honor almighty God with our praise. Let us sing our own magnificat to the Lord this Christmas as we trust His work, not only our personal lives, but in His care of the whole world. Merry Christmas.