The First Songs of Christmas

The Song of Creation

In the beginning,
There was the Song.
A song of life.
A song of light.

The Singer wanted to share his joy.
He dreamed of more voices, new parts.

And so.
In the beginning,
God said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3)

The morning stars sang together
And all the angels shouted for joy. (Job 38:7)

Birds sang in the sky; whales sang in the sea.
Men and women sang on the earth.
All of creation was praise.

Somewhere, somehow, something refused to sing.
It hated the Creator’s tune
And tried to drown His music.

Soon people forgot the words of the Song.
They began to hate and kill.
Machines of war turned gardens to desert.
The world was lost in the dark.

Still a few remained who remembered God’s tune,
And were able to sing the Song.

These prophets sang of a time when God’s music
Would again flood the world with light.

The Song of Isaiah

Hear the lyrics of prophet Isaiah:

The time of darkness and despair will not go on forever…
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.
On those who live in the shadow of death,
A light will rise and shine.  (Isaiah 9) [1]

Nation will no longer fight against nation.
Or train for war anymore.
They will hammer their swords into ploughs.
And their spears into farming tools. (Isaiah 2:4) [2]

Even the dry land and the desert will be glad in those days.
Streams will flow in the wilderness.
The wasteland will rejoice and blossom,
With flowers and singing and joy!  (Isaiah 35)

Sing, O childless woman,
You who have never given birth.
Break into loud and joyful song.
For you will have many children. (Isaiah 54)

Isaiah sings of a new creation.
New life and joy and peace.
Don’t you long for this time?

Isaiah said all this will come
Through a future king like the great King David.
He will rule with fairness forever.
The Prince of Peace.
The Messiah. (Isaiah 9)

And then the voice of the prophets fell silent.
For hundreds of years God’s song was not heard.
And the people of Israel waited.

Waited for God’s promise to come true.
Waited for God’s light to dawn.
Waited to sing God’s song. [3]

Waiting for Angels

So we come to the Gospel of Luke.
The first two chapters are full of people waiting and praying.

First we meet an old couple,
The priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth.  (Luke 1:5-25)
They have served God faithfully all their lives.
But they have a great sorrow.

Elizabeth remembers the day they were married.
Such happiness and hope.
Soon her friends asked, are you pregnant yet?
Not yet, she said, but certainly soon.
Months went by.
Years went by.
And still she had no child.  [4]
In that culture, she was a failure. [5]
And now she was too old.

But remember God’s promise in Isaiah:
“Sing, O childless woman!”
For the barren land shall bloom.

One day Zechariah is in the temple.
An angel appears and promises:
Your wife will have a son.
And he will prepare the way
For the coming of God’s Messiah.[6]

Six months later, we meet a relative of Elizabeth called Mary.
Probably just a teenager.
Mary was engaged to Joseph, a descendant of King David.

One day the angel appeared to Mary.  (Luke 1:26-38)
You will have a son.
His name will be Jesus.
He will be the Son of God, and he rule for ever.
He is the Messiah, the one who sings God’s Song.

I wonder what it was like for Zechariah and Mary.
That day something surprising broke into their world,
And life was never the same.

Many artists have painted the scene (the Annunciation).[7]
Some show Mary very calm, very mature, very dignified.
With expensive clothes like a queen.

I think the painter Rossetti got it more right in 1850 (see here).
“Confused and disturbed”, Luke says (29).
“What could it mean?
How can this happen?  I am still a virgin!”  (34)

The angel replies,
“God’s Holy Spirit will come upon you.
People said Elizabeth could never have children.
Now she is six months pregnant,
For nothing is impossible with God.”  (35-37)

That’s a good verse to remember if you’re struggling with something:
“Nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary hurried off to see her relation.  (1:39-45)
“Auntie Elizabeth, I’m here!”  She called.
The baby jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.
God’s Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth’s heart.
“Sing O childless woman!”

It’s a lovely scene.
The two women expecting their first baby.
The teenage girl starting adulthood.
Her old auntie near the end of her days.
Both of them touched by God inside,
A miracle of new life.
Many artists have painted this too (the Visitation).

The Song of Mary

For hundreds of years,
The Song was silent.
God’s Spirit seemed absent.

Now he’s visibly active,
And those he touches burst into song.

There are four songs in the first two chapters of Luke.[8]
The first is Mary’s Magnificat. [9]

The name comes from the first words in the Latin translation.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
My soul magnifies the Lord.

It’s a magnificent song,
And the first Christmas Carol!

46 Mary responded,
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!
48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
49 For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
50 He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
52 He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
54 He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
55 For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Mary rejoices in wonder.
She’s just a normal girl – not rich or famous or great. [10]
Yet the Lord has chosen her![11]
As he chooses ordinary people like you and me today.

Mary sings of the great things God has done for her,
Then of the great things God does in history:
Fulfilling his promise through all generations.
And showing us his character

He is a gentle God of kindness and mercy.
He cares for the poor and weak.
He lifts up the humble and hungry.[12]

He is a mighty God of strength and justice.
He brings down those who are proud and cruel and try to silence God’s song.

Mary is not just a timid teenage girl.[13]
This is a dangerous thing to sing. [14]
Some might call it revolution.[15]

The Song of Zechariah

A few months later, Elizabeth had a baby boy, just as the angel had said.
Then the Holy Spirit filled her husband Zechariah.
And he sings the second Christmas song, the Benedictus.

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.

Like Mary did, Zechariah sings of a God
Who remembers his promises and rescues his people.
Zechariah is a priest, so he knows the Bible well.
He weaves together themes from the prophets.

God has sent us a mighty Saviour
from the royal line of his servant David.
Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us,
so we can serve God without fear…
and find salvation
through forgiveness of our sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.  (Luke 1:68-79)

The Song of the Angels

Six months later, at the start of chapter 2,
Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem,
The city of King David.
And there the baby Jesus is born. (The Nativity, 2:1-7)[16]

Outside Bethlehem some shepherds are in the fields.  (2:8-20) [17]
The stars twinkling above.
The sheep sleeping below.
All is calm.
Maybe they are nodding off themselves,
It’s such a
Silent Night.

Suddenly the sky blazes with light.
It blinds their eyes and fills them with fear.
What is going on?

Again an angel appears:
“Don’t be afraid!
I bring good news of great joy!
The Saviour – the Messiah, the Lord – [18]
Has been born today in Bethlehem!
You will find him wrapped in strips of cloth,
Lying in a manger.” [19]

And then comes the third Christmas song,
Sung by a choir of angels: Gloria in excelsis Deo

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

It’s like the chorus of creation,[20]
When the stars sang for joy.
Hark the Herald Angels sing.
Glory to the new-born King.

Imagine the shepherds,
Forgetting their sheep,
Running through the streets of Bethlehem.
They look inside every barn, every house with a shed.
Is it here?  Only cows.
Or in here?  Just some sheep.
Then they open a door and…
A young couple, happy though tired.
And, away in a manger, the baby Jesus. (Adoration of the Shepherds)

They look into his eyes and see the joy that made the world.
They touch his tiny hands that once threw stars into space.
They go back to their sheep, singing God’s Song.

The Song of Simeon

40 days later, Joseph and Mary go to Jerusalem.
To dedicate their baby to God in the temple. (The Presentation, 2:21-35) [21]

There is an old man there called Simeon.
All his life had been waiting,
Waiting for God’s King to come and rescue Israel. [22]
God had made him a personal promise:
You will not die before you see the Messiah.

When Simeon met Joseph and Mary,[23]
He took Jesus in his arms.
He looked down at the baby.
And he sang the fourth Christmas song: Nunc dimittis

Nunc dimittis servum tuum.
Now dismiss your servant.

29 “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
as you have promised.
30 I have seen your salvation,
31  which you have prepared for all people.
32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!”

It’s another touching scene.
It reminds me of my great aunt holding her great-great-nephew
Not so long before she died.
The faithful old wrinkles.
The pure baby face.
And God’s joy shining between them.

Joy to the world!
The Lord is come. [24]

The promised baby is born.
The new day has dawned.
Like a soldier who watched all night and whose duty ends at sunrise,
The old man is ready to go.
But first Simeon gives Mary a warning.

“This child will cause many in Israel to fall,
and many others to rise.
He has been sent as a sign from God,
but many will oppose him.
So the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your soul.” (34-35) [25]

Strange hard words.
What do they mean?
The joyful song of Christmas has a note of sorrow. [26]

A Song of Sorrow

As Jesus grew in wisdom and strength.  (2:52)
He sang God’s Song in a stronger voice.

He sang the song of Isaiah:
I am the Light that shines in the dark.
And makes water flow from dry hearts.

He sang the song of Mary:
Bad rulers brought down
And God’s help to the weak.

He sang the song of Zechariah:
Freedom from hate
And forgiveness of sin.

He sang the song of the angels:
Glory to God and God alone.
And a world of peace without war. [27]

He sang the song of Simeon:
Light to the nations, revealing hearts.
And as Simeon warned, Jesus was opposed.

30 years later at Easter time,
For singing these songs he was killed.

His mother was there at the foot of the cross.
And the sword of grief pierced her soul.

“She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger.”  (Luke 2:7)
“They wrapped his body in cloth, and laid him in a tomb.” (Luke 23:53)

How do you think Mary felt?
In sculptures of the Pieta,[28]
She holds his body as she once held her baby.

The promise of God had come to an end.
The Singer of the Song was dead.

The Song of Heaven and Earth

Three days later, just like at his birth.
Bright angels again.
Amazement again.
Fear and wonder and joy again:
The Song was sung once more! [29]

Life and light to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Waiting for God’s promise.
Fulfilment bringing joy.
That was the first Christmas.

Can you hear the carol singing?
Maybe the music is always there but mostly we don’t notice. [30]

Isaiah singing of light in the dark.
Streams in the sand and the end of war.

Elizabeth and Zechariah singing in wonder over their promised son.

Mary singing for joy with her baby boy,
The sign of God’s might and mercy.

Simeon singing as he saw the Messiah,
Salvation held in his arms.

The Song of God’s servants through all generations.
Will it be your song too?

Will you join the choir of shepherds and angels?
That’s the Singer’s dream – more voices are his delight!
Will you add your verse to the chorus of creation?
What will your part sound like?
Christ Jesus born of Mary,
Be born in us today.[31]

In the last book of the Bible,
A prophet saw heaven and said,

I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne.
With every creature in heaven and on earth they sang in a mighty chorus:
“Worthy is the One who was killed
To bring joy back to life.
Blessing and glory to the Singer who died
And rose with God’s Song of light.”
(Revelation 5)

Gloria in excelsis Deo
This is the Song of Creation,
The Song of Christmas.
A Song of life and light.

Joy to the world.
The Lord is come.
This is the Song of our King.

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney (1990)
Based on Mary’s Magnificat. [32]


What is your favourite:
Christmas Carol?
Promise from God?
Part of the story we heard today?

What sort of song are you singing?

Are you waiting for God to fulfil a promise?

What does God want to birth in you?

[1] “Darkness as black as night covers all the earth, but the glory of the Lord will rise and shine.  All nations will come to your light.  Your eyes will shine and your heart will beat with joy.”  (Isaiah 60:1-5, also Isaiah 42:6)
[2] The UN building in New York has this verse on the wall, and the UN art collection has a sculpture of a sword being beaten to a ploughshare.  See here.
[3] Paul says all creation is groaning in labour pains, waiting to be freed from bondage to decay. (Romans 8:21-22)
[4] The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 shows the grief of a wife without children.  Rachel and Leah have a bitter ongoing competition to see who can bear Jacob the most sons (Genesis 29-30).
[5] According to Barclay, the rabbis said seven people were excommunicated, including a Jew without a wife, or without a child.
[6] Son of God is a title for the king in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7, 89:27).
[7] See a range of modern paintings here.
[8] Read four sermons on these four songs here.  Some count five by including Elizabeth’s Beatus or blessing on Mary (1:42-45).
[9] This is the longest speech by a woman in the New Testament.  Some churches sing it at Evensong every day.
[10] We know she and Joseph were not wealthy, because their offering after Jesus’ birth was two pigeons, as allowed for the poor, instead of a pigeon and a sheep.  (2:24, Leviticus 12:8).
[11] I suspect this song came from the Magnificat: “Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  For he has done great things…”
[12] Georgetown theologian John Haught writes, “A major part of the message of prophetic religion is that the dreams that arise among the poor are not naive illusions but compelling clues to the nature of the real.”  As Martin Luther King said, “the arm of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
[13] Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought against the Nazis and was hung just before the end of World War II.  Here’s what he said about the Magnificat:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out.…  This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.” (A sermon in Advent 1933)
[14] Mary is echoing the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, maybe the song of Deborah in Judges 5, and verses like Isaiah 11:4.  One pastor suggested it was sung through tears, with “fists clenched against an unknown future”.  For a fun take, see the song and commentary I’m the one that’s cool: a modern Magnificat.
[15] But a nonviolent revolution, unlike for Marx who thought force was the midwife of history so the Communist dream came through violence.  She’s singing the song of Moses and Miriam when God defeated Egypt (Exodus 15).  When Israel remembered this song at Passover every year, the Romans were on edge and moved more troops to Jerusalem.  There are various claims online that some Latin American governments have banned the Magnificat and churches for being too revolutionary, though I haven’t found primary sources.  Stanley Jones in India said, “The Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world”, and it seems it was at least once advised that pastors avoid the Magnificat – maybe too radical a clash with the Hindu system of caste.
[16] See Wikipedia – Nativity_of_Jesus_in_art and Nativity Paintings from around the WorldIt’s about 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The population of Bethlehem was likely 200-300, so King Herod’s “Massacre of the Infants” may have only killed a dozen or two – not enough to make the history books in a brutal age.  Joseph and Mary went there for a Roman census.  The purpose was probably raising taxes, so a census often sparked riots (Acts 5:37).  Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “because the world superpower wanted more money.”  (NT Wright).  Maybe it wasn’t such a peaceful night.
[17] Shepherds were often marginalised and despised as the roving lifestyle stopped them keeping all God’s laws, and they were often viewed as outcasts.  So the angels appearing to them – not the wealthy and respected – is another example of the great reversal of Luke’s Gospel and the Magnificat.  More honourably, it’s possible these were flocks keep for temple offerings – Bethlehem was only 6 miles from Jerusalem.
[18] The titles of Lord, Saviour, Holy, are applied to both God and Jesus in Luke 1-2, suggesting Christ’s divinity.
[19] Even more than Mary’s Magnificat, in the Roman context, the angel’s words are revolutionary.  On 2 September 31 BC, Augustus Caesar ended 20 years of civil war at the Battle of Actium and brought the good news – evangelium or gospel – of peace to the Empire.  He was proclaimed with the same titles as used for Jesus here, and his birthday was soon celebrated, remembering his miraculous conception. (After Matthew and Luke, there’s a third Nativity story, the allegory in Revelation 12 which echoed Roman stories of an Emperor’s birth.)   In The First Christmas (2008), Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan highlight the ideological question and conflict of Christmas: who is really Lord and saviour of the whole world, and how to bring peace?  Through the violent victory of Rome or the nonviolent justice of Christ?  Of Jesus’ titles they write:
The titles of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus were: Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Saviour of the World.  To use them of the newborn and Jesus would be either low lampoon or high treason.  And, since empires always know their opponents, Rome was not laughing.  (63)
[20] The angels’ song is echoed on Palm Sunday: peace and glory in the highest heaven (Luke 19:37-38).
[21] See pictures and poems of the presentation from around the world here.
[22] “Break forth into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 52:9)  Zechariah is followed by the old prophet Anna, waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (2:36-38).  So Luke frames his Christmas story with a pious old couple at the start and the end.
[23] Three times Luke says Joseph and Mary were brought to the temple by following the sacrificial Law of Moses.  Three times he repeats that Simeon was filled with and led by the Holy Spirit.  Written Scripture and the Holy Spirit bring these people together.  God speaks and guides us in different ways, in the Christmas stories through dreams and angels, astrology and casting lots, the big events and powers of history including imperial command, ancient prophecy and customary temple rituals, faithful law keeping obedience and pain filled longing prayer.
[24] Perhaps the most famous of Christmas carols, inspired by Psalm 98.
[25] Catholic art shows Our Lady of Sorrows pierced by seven swords (see here).  Jesus himself said sometimes the effect of his teaching was to bring not peace, but a sword of division (Matthew 10:34-36, Luke 12:51).
[26] TS Eliot’s poem the Journey of the Magi ends with a similar sense of loss and foreboding that colours their joy as the wise men return home: had they gone to see birth or death?
[27] On the night before he died, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.”  (John 14:77)  On the first Christmas of World War I, at several trenches along the western front, thousands of German and French or English soldiers laid down their arms to sing and celebrate together – read about the Christmas Truce here.
[28] The modern War Pieta of Max Ginsburg is chilling (see here).
[29] “I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black / It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back / They buried my body and they thought I’d gone / But I am the Dance and I still go on!” – from The Lord of the Dance by Sydney Bertram Carter (1963), a song with a similar spirit to this sermon.  See here.  Also Calvin Miller’s poetic allegory of Christ’s life, The Singer (1975).
[30] As the carol sings, “Still their heavenly music floats over all the weary world” but “man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring.”
[31] I was at a children’s English camp in Korea one Christmas, and two staff debated what Christmas songs to sing with the kids.  One liked the old hymns and argued that Jesus was born 2000 years ago.  The other preferred more modern songs, and said Christ is born in our hearts today!  Both, of course, were right.
[32] Read the full lyrics and hear it here.