The Gospel according to Luke presents songs sung by Elizabeth, Mary, the angels and the shepherds and Simeon. In response to God’s salvific act in Christ, these songs beautifully delineate the themes of promise and fulfillment in Luke. Among the songs sung to God for His great salvation and deeds, the song of Mary in Luke 1: 46-56 is significant; it unfolds the meaning of Christmas.
Luke 1:39 indicates that Mary set out and met Elizabeth, her cousin. When she greeted Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaped. Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit and exclaimed with a loud voice, “blessed among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Then Mary sang a beautiful song, which is titled “the song of Christmas”.
The Song of Christmas is a Song of Rejoicing (vv. 46-47)
In vs 46-47, Mary says, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The use of Greek words, megalunei and hegalliasen
highlights the element of rejoicing and praising. These words have been synonymously used to express her exuberant joy.
The Joy of Mary is attributed to her elevation from the lowly status. She rejoices over the fact that God has looked upon her lowly status. Her humble or lowly status is indicated by the use of the Greek word Tapeinos, translated as “lowly,” or humble or poor.
The LXX, especially in the Psalms, uses the word to depict a person who is of little significance in the world’s evaluation, even one who is oppressed by the world (Ps. 10:18; 18:27; 34;18; 81: 3; 102:17; 138:6; Amos 2:7; 8:6). Tapeinos
is also used in Hellenistic literature as “cast down” or “oppressed” and points to a state of oppression. The Mediterranean world, in which Mary lived, relegated women merely to domestic space. It did not attribute honor and status to women. In this situation of shame, Mary sings that God has visited and validated her honor.
The use of blessedness in v.48 further confirms the honorable status with which Mary was bestowed upon. She is jubilated because all generation would call her as blessed. The blessedness of Mary is thus attributed to her understanding of God as her Savior. The declaration of makarios (blessedness) over the life of Mary is a positive way of putting value on her womanhood. Such desperate need could largely point to the lowly, poor, the hungry and oppressed.
Luke, the theologian of the poor rightly demonstrates the fact that God is the Savior whose message disrupts the powerful, the elite and the rich. The word ‘salvation’ does not include only the spiritual dimension, which is freedom from sin and guilt but also implies ‘yasha’ (salvation) or deliverance from enemies and freedom from physical problems.
Luke presents salvation holistically (spiritual, social and personal). Marshall rightly notes that the political and spiritual dimensions of salvation are intertwined in the Lukan concept of salvation. Joel B. Green clearly maintains that Luke does not dichotomize salvation as spiritual and physical but it embraces the totality of life.
By removing the disreputable status of Mary and the poor, Luke seeks to portray salvation as a human right. Luke construes salvation as addressing concerns and rights for the voiceless and the poor. It is imperative to note that one’s salvation experience in Christ gives legitimacy to advocate human rights which have been trampled upon.
In our engagement with asserting rights for the ostracized, we need to emulate Jesus, who is the champion of the voiceless and defender of human dignity and rights. Therefore, we need to rejoice in God, the Savior whose gospel affirms the values and rights of the poor.
The Song of Christmas is a Song of Reflection (vv. 49-50)
Mary now proceeds to reflect on God. She perceives God along the themes of promise and fulfillment which is a predominant motif in the infancy narratives. Mary focuses on God’s activity by reflecting on God’s glorious attributes of omnipotence, holiness and His mercy. She praises God’s mighty action for her elevation from a lowly state to blessedness. Her conception is attributed to the liberative act of God.
It is important to note that Mary now moves from her personal story to the larger story of God. Her ability to relate her life along the line of the history of salvation is significant. She connects the story of Jesus (in her womb), to the story of God and the story of people of God in vv. 54-55.
Between the story of God and the story of Jesus, she locates compassion as the inter-connecting link. Since compassion is the core character of God, it becomes the vocation of Jesus. Jesus’ mission emerged from compassion which He used to transform the society. Ben Witherington III perceives compassion as justice meted out to the poor and the socially excluded. Marcus Borg construes Jesus’ compassion as a vision committed to the society.
Thus, the song of Christmas is a powerful narration of God in relation to individuals, people and the world. It is the story of Christmas that validates the sense of our being in the world. Mary invites us to reflect on the story of God in Jesus Christ by reflecting on God’s attributes of power, holiness and mercy.
The story of Jesus is fundamental to human existence. In this construct, Mary’s conception of God as compassionate creates a space and hope for the transformation of the vulnerable and the stigmatized in our society.
When the story of God in Christ is connected to stories of alienation and oppression, God, for Luke, becomes the God of the lowly, the poor, disinherited and disreputable. Herein Luke affirms God’s preference for the socially ostracized and stigmatized groups.
Beginning with the Magnificat, this theme is interwoven throughout the Gospel. Jesus accepts the tax collectors and sinners, the poor and needy. We need to reflect over the sublime attributes of God and articulate an authentic theology which will create a symphony for holistic change.
The Song of Christmas is a Song of Renewal (vv. 51-55)
The third dimension of the song of Christmas is renewal. Unlike the modern songs, the song of Mary calls for a dramatic change or reversal of change in three areas: 1) the mindset of the arrogant; 2) the political and social structures; and 3) the economic distribution.
Luke has used the Greek aorist tense to speak about the completion of action. The action taken by God is called a revolution or reversal. The reversal of God assumes greater significance to Luke and his community which was affected by the stratified policies of the Roman.
In the Roman Empire, power and privilege determined the status and the honor of the ruling class and the elite who enjoyed the benefits. As a result, there was a widespread poverty, numerous struggles and disadvantages. In that social order, the poor, the rich, the lepers, and the women were placed at the bottom.
Thus, the Roman administration caused widespread social disparity. Hence, the song of Christmas sung by Mary, was very relevant to that situation.
Firstly, the song of Mary demands a reversal in the political structures. The word dunatas
(powerful) refers to the oppressive Roman rulers. Mary notes that God dismantles them from their thrones.
Thus, the song unfolds a rigorous action which brings a paradigm shift from the powerful mighty to the powerless masses. The song disrupts the politics of the Roman power, thereby elevating the status of the lowly. The song also necessitates change in human mindset and relationship. It demands a reversal of man’s opinions of greatness and significance.
Then, there is a reversal of change in the economic order. The Roman economic policy served to benefit the elite Romans. While it had enriched the elite and ruling class, it suffered the masses. But in this song, we find that the hungry are fed with good things.
By speaking about this drastic change, the song of Mary expects a revolution in economic distribution where all will have equal access. Now God is seen as the God of reversal who is always engaged in bringing revolutionary change. However, this change is not merely an eschatological change; it is expected to take place here and now.
Christopher Tuckett explains: “The gospel is not only good news for the economically poor, but also good news for those without honor in society, in proclaiming the reversal of such human values in the sight of God.” Philip Esler also states: “… the elimination of injustice, the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor and the destitute, is not merely an eschatological reality, but is a vital constituent of Christianity in this world, here and now.”
Likewise, we can learn that though the gospel is theologically based, it is still pertinent to social realities of our times. Today, we encounter two major problems: 1) the disintegration of the family life; and 2) the fragmentation of the meaning of life.
The song of Christmas reminds us that we should witness to God’s renewal. The hope for the renewal of life does not come from the center of power structures. But it emerges from the need to perpetually witness God’s renewal to those who are marginalized and bordered.
Let the song of Christmas disturb our lives in our church, society and the world at large. Let us engage ourselves by declaring the life-affirming values such as love, peace, compassion and justice enshrined in the story of Christmas.
Rev Dr K Balan is serving as the Principal of South India Biblical Seminary, Karnataka, India.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash