During the run up to Christmas, we are bombarded with seasonal songs. Some will be traditional Christmas Carols that we sing in church or on the streets. Others will be secular holiday hits we hear over the radio, in stores, and everywhere else we go.
In Luke’s gospel, we also find a number of songs connected to the birth of Jesus in some way.
4 songs in Luke’s gospel connected to the birth of Jesus
In Luke 1:39-56, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who had been barren for many years, but was now expecting in her old age. The reason for Mary’s visit was to tell Elizabeth of the good news of her own pregnancy which the angel had announced.
Elizabeth informs Mary that as soon as she heard Mary’s greeting, the baby inside her moved in her womb with gladness. After blessing Mary with words of encouragement, Mary breaks into song.
Often known as the Magnificat, Mary’s song echoes Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-26.
She recognises that she herself is lowly and that God has remembered her. However, she also acknowledges that all generations will call her blessed. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Mary and Joseph were both from a humble and poor background, and Jesus himself was born into poverty.
The rest of Mary’s song also calls to mind the Sermon on the Plain. Mary praises God that he has done great things such as filling the hungry, keeping his promise to her ancestors and coming to Israel’s help.
In his commentary on Luke: That You May Know The Truth, R Kent-Hughes identifies 3 reversals of the ordinary order of things that Mary prophesies her son will bring about.
A moral reversal. In verse 51, Mary sings that God has “performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.”
A social reversal: In verse 52, Mary sings that “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
A spiritual reversal: In verse 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
These echo Jesus’ blessing to the poor, hungry and oppressed, and woes to those who are rich and in comfort in Luke 6:24-26.
While Jesus would bring about these reversals during his ministry, Mary’s song acknowledges that God has already done these things even while she’s still pregnant and before Jesus is even born. In other words, the seed of change is already there working for deliverance before anyone realises he has come into the world.
We can take comfort from Mary’s song that we can trust that God is working in our lives before we even see his plan come into fruition.
Zechariah had been silent since the Angel Gabriel first prophesied that his wife Elizabeth would bear them a son in her old age. Because he did not believe, he was unable to speak. However, when their son was circumcised, Zechariah indicated that the baby’s name should be John, even though there was no-one in their family with that name.
From that moment on, he was able to speak again. The first thing he does is praise God, singing of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Zechariah’s song contains many allusions to Old Testament events. He mentions how God has provided them with a saviour who is a descendent of David. In addition, he also remembers how God delivered His people from all their enemies and kept His covenant with Abraham. Zechariah hints at the Messiah’s lineage in a similar way to the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38.
Zechariah sings about John’s destiny as a prophet for the Most High God who would prepare the way of the Lord. Then he sings of the rising sun who will come to us from heaven and shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.
This calls to mind the words of Isaiah 9:2 which says “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
All of these prophesies found their fulfilment in Jesus. However, God still arrived in a surprising way. He was a different kind of Messiah to the type that the Israelites were expecting.
The rising sun is the Rising Son. Mary will give birth to her expected child and He will rise within the world. However, he is also the Son of God who will rise from the dead and deliver us from the shadow of death.
An angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds who are out in the fields. He brings good news that a saviour has been born today who will be the Messiah. After telling the shepherds where to find the baby, a multitude of angels appear praising God and singing:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
This is a message that is delivered to a group of people considered outcasts in society. The nature of the shepherds’ work would have made them ritually unclean and incapable of keeping the law properly. R Kent-Hughes points out that shepherds were under a ban according to the Misnah. The Jewish people of the day regarded shepherds as thieves and only slightly higher in status than lepers.
It is therefore significant that God’s message came to those who were poor and needy and not those who were well off. Christ was born for those who were in need and not those who were self sufficient.
The angels’ song had an upwards vertical element first, giving praise to God in the heavens. This was followed by a downwards vertical element bringing peace on earth to those on whom God’s favour rests.
We can follow their example as we worship God. There is a similar vertical element as our praises ascend to heaven. As God is enthroned on our praises. this is followed by a downwards vertical aspect. In other words, we could describe it as heaven invading earth. This allows us to experience more of God’s presence in a particular place, even though he is omnipresent. I have discussed this more in detail in my article Is God really more present during worship than at other times.
We come to the final song connected to the birth of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. This takes place when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple in Luke 2: 22 – 40 for the purification rites of circumcision required by the Law.
Simeon is a righteous man on whom the Holy Spirit rests. He is not yet indwelt by the Spirit, as this will only happen to believers after Pentecost. Simeon had been waiting for this day for a long time. God had promised him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah.
The Holy Spirit enables him to recognise the identity of the baby Jesus. Similarly, he is able to understand that this baby is the one they have all been waiting for who would be a light of revelation to the Gentiles.
Simeon sings the words:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
R Kent-Hughes observes that Simeon didn’t say that he had only seen part of God’s salvation. Rather, when he looked at the baby Jesus, he saw that He was his salvation. This is why he was ready now to depart in peace. As Kent-Hughes states:
“True peace comes only when we, like Simeon, understand that salvation is Jesus Christ plus nothing—and rest our souls in him alone.”
Additionally, Kent-Hughes adds that to receive salvation, all we have to do is be like Simeon. In other words, we should also take Jesus in our arms as Lord in the same way that Simeon did. When he did so, he was able to see God’s salvation immediately.
Is this something we are prepared to do this Christmas as we receive the baby Jesus into the world?
Which of the four songs in Luke’s gospel do you find most hope inspiring and why? Leave me a comment below.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.