Friday, December 21, 2012
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2012
They're not exactly what we call Christmas carols, but they are among the earliest Advent and Christmas songs of our faith. They can be found in the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel, and they are designated by the Latin rendering of the opening words of each song.
The first is the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When she comes to the full realization of the enormity of what she has been asked to do by God, she can scarcely restrain herself. Her soul magnifies the Lord. Perhaps the most striking thing about her song is her anticipation of One who will turn upside down the values by which most people in her day, and in ours, live their lives. In this, she is very much in the tradition of the ancient prophets of Israel who looked toward the day when "justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:24)
The second is the Benedictus, (Blessed be the Lord), the song of Zechariah, Mary's kinsman, and the father of John the Baptizer. Zechariah had been struck dumb because he doubted the angel when told that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive at their advanced ages. When John was born, Zechariah's speech returned, and he sings of his joy at a God whose promises are never forgotten, and never fail. In his song he affirms the role of his son as the one who will prepare the way for the Redeemer.
The third song is the Gloria, the song of the angels at the birth of Jesus. "Glory to God in the highest," they sing, and we use the Latin words verbatim at this time each year when we sing the chorus of that beautiful Christmas hymn "Angels We Have Heard on High."
The final song is the Nunc Dimittis, (Now let me depart), the song of Simeon, a pious old man who had waited all his life to see Israel's deliverance. When Mary brought Jesus to the temple to be dedicated, Simeon recognized the child as the promised Deliverer. He prophesies that Jesus will bring light to all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, and Mary marvels at his words. Then, he has a warning for her: it is not going to be easy for her to stand and watch when the time comes for her baby to fulfill his mission.
Perhaps an examination of these, the earliest Christmas songs, can enhance and enrich our own appreciation of this season.
- Howard Pendley