There seem to be two views of a 21st century Christmas. The first owes something to Charles Dickens and Bing Crosby: chestnuts roasting on an open fire; the Christmas of jollity and plenty; merry Christmas!
It is a time centred around an excess of food, booze and presents; a time to forget the cold weather and have fun. The second view is quite different; it is the angst-filled Christmas. John Lennon sang, ‘So this is Christmas; what have you done?’ It is the Christmas of Bob Geldof, where we are urged to get out and do something. We read of ‘Crisis at Christmas’ and are confronted by images of war and starving children.
The Bible’s presentation of Christmas is quite different from either of these. It is a proclamation of good news, an announcement of what God has done for mankind. It is indeed a call to rejoice: in God’s fulfilment of his promises, in the birth of a Saviour.
Mary’s Song, or the Magnificat, as it is often called, (Luke 1:46-55) is a well known part of Scripture, even for many non-Christians. Perhaps only the Lord’s Prayer and 23rd Psalm are better known. Here it is:
‘And Mary said:
My soul glorifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
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.
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.’
We know that God inspired it (2 Timothy 3:16) and Mary sang it, but who wrote it?
Luke was a Greek doctor, who wrote his Gospel in educated, idiomatic Greek, although the poetry of Luke 1-2 has a more a Hebrew and Old Testament feel to it. Indeed, J. Gresham Machen in his book, The virgin birth of Christ (Baker Book House,1965. ISBN 0-8019-5885-6), suggests that these two chapters are what we might call today The Mary diaries — Mary’s own record of our Lord’s birth, as she passed them on to Luke.
Let’s set the scene. An angel comes to Mary and tells her of the amazing birth that is going to happen. Mary goes to see Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies about Jesus’ birth. Mary realises that she is being made the vehicle by which God is bringing salvation to his people. She then burst into her wonderful hymn of praise.
Steeped in Scripture
Mary is well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures. Her song is similar to the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-11). She knows about God’s past dealings with his people, how he humbled Pharaoh, the Philistines, Sennacherib and Haman; and how he exalted Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David and Esther.
Never has the Lord allowed his people to be utterly destroyed. She knows God’s purpose in history, to send the Messiah, the Seed of Abraham. A sound knowledge of Bible history is so valuable in building up true faith. How important it is to read the whole Bible through regularly, especially the historical books, Joshua to Esther.
In her song we see the humility of Mary. She had been chosen by God to bring Jesus, the Saviour of mankind, into the world, yet she is conscious of her lowly state and her own need of a Saviour.
She and Joseph were poor. She would have been the first to refute the idea of her being ‘immaculately conceived’ and to reject the position given to her by the Roman Catholic Church as ‘queen of heaven’. She is an example of a humble and spiritually-minded believer, but not a ‘mediatrix’.
In her song, we also see Mary’s thankfulness. She begins: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’.She is saying that every part of her mind and feelings are taken up with worshipping God. The reality of what God was doing through her had come home to her, and the wonder of it all drives her to praise God with every faculty.
Have we really understood what God has done for us? That the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, perfect and holy in every way, should leave the magnificence and perfection of heaven to come to this sad, poor and fallen world?
That he came, not to help basically good people who have just got into difficulties, but to rescue guilty sinners and rebels — those who have turned their backs upon God, rejected his righteous laws and set themselves up to rule themselves by their own corrupt standards? That’s you and me by nature (Ephesians 2:1-3)!
We can’t recognise the greatness of what God has done for us, until we first know that we are fallen sinners under divine wrath. And yet Christ died for such as us! It’s this that causes Mary to cry out, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord!’
‘My spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’. The Greek word translated as ‘rejoiced’ could also be rendered ‘exulted’. It’s like the footballer who has scored the winning goal at Wembley. Yes, it’s happened — the promises that God made way back at the beginning (Genesis 3:15), and also to Abraham, David and the prophets, now at last are going to be fulfilled!
Mary didn’t know how it was going to be done. The cross still lay in the future, but she knew that the child forming in her womb was the One through whom God’s great plan of salvation would be accomplished.
Do you know God as your Saviour? Can you rejoice as Mary did in God for your salvation? Can you say with the prophet, ‘The Lord is my strength and my song. He has also become my salvation’ (Isaiah 12:2)?
Do you rejoice in God the Son as your Saviour? God set him forth as a ‘propitiation’ for our sins, a sacrifice to turn away God’s holy wrath from us (Romans 3:25).
God’s justice must be satisfied, but, because he loves us so much, God has poured out his righteous anger against sin upon his own dear, spotless, innocent Son. ‘For [the Lord] made [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). And it’s personal!
‘Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, should’st die for me?’
The apostle Paul said: ‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief’ (1Timothy 1:15). Here is the wonder of Christmas, that the very worst of sinners can know God’s forgiveness.
The Lord Jesus Christ came to earth to save. ‘The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world’ (John 1:9).
Stephen Owen is a deacon at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth. This article is edited, with kind permission, from his Martin Marprelate blog (www.marprelate.wordpress.com)