Summary: As Mary sings her song of praise, we learn of the ways that the coming Messiah will "turn the world upside-down."
“If you’re happy and you know it…” (Clap your hands!) “If you’re happy and you know it…” (Stomp your feet, shout “Amen!” etc.) We’re all familiar with that song, and certainly it conveys a lot of the ways that we express our joy when we are particularly happy about something. And we do have many ways of conveying our happiness, don’t we? If we’re super-excited, we might call our family, or text a friend to share the big news; we might jump for joy or dance wildly. Well, in ancient Israel, when people were happy, they would sing.
I think that tells us a lot about how people were feeling when news began to break across the ancient near East that God was at last sending the long-promised Messiah. In the first two chapters alone of Luke’s gospels, he records four different songs as a part of the Christmas story. These psalms, or songs of faith, capture the great joy of the people surrounding the birth of Christ. The first of these songs of joy is placed on the lips of Jesus’ mother, Mary. It pours forth from her mouth ten days after the visit from the angel Gabriel, which seems like a long time coming from a woman who has just learned that she is pregnant. Usually, that’s cause for immediate celebration. But we have to remember that Mary’s pregnancy happened under less than desirable circumstances, and she could have been killed for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. So it’s not until she enters the house of her cousin Elizabeth, full of fear and uncertainty, and hears in response Elizabeth’s enthusiastic greeting of blessedness, that Mary finally allows joy to fill her and begins to sing this song of praise, the “Magnificat.”
So why was Mary so happy? What was it that had her singing for joy? Obviously, some of it had to do with the fact that she would soon be welcoming a child into her family. But there is much more at play, and Mary lays it all out in her song of praise, beginning with God’s work in her own life. Remember, Mary is a peasant girl from Nazareth, a poor backwater village in the shadow of the much wealthier Roman town of Sepphoris. And as Mary celebrates her divine pregnancy, she is proclaiming the mighty work of God in turning the established order on its head in favor of the poor and marginalized—people just like her. Mary is celebrating the fact that the last shall now be first because God has looked upon the lowliest of servants with extravagant blessings of love. Even though Mary found herself in the midst of trying circumstances, even though she was a very small fish in a very big pond, she is able to say that, “the mighty one has done great things for [her].” And Mary now knows in the depths of her being that in fulfillment of God’s promises and in response to the people’s hopes and dreams, all generations will be blessed just as she has been! With such hopes and dreams now becoming reality, how can Mary keep from singing?
But Mary’s song isn’t only about herself. After lifting up God’s work in her own life, Mary continues the song with anticipatory praise of all that God will do for God’s people through the son she is to bear. Through her song, Mary announces for the first time in Luke’s gospel the radical revolution that God is about to begin in the person of Jesus Christ. It has prompted many to refer to Mary as “the first disciple of the gospel,” and for good reason. Mary gives a summary overview of all that God will accomplish in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is certainly nothing short of a complete revolution.
So as we look at this “first carol of Christmas,” let’s consider all that God was up to in the world that Mary was so excited about. First, Mary says, “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.” You know, pride is a really terrible thing. A colleague of mine once said, “I know that God considers all sins equally, but if there is one sin that really is worse than any other, I think it’s pride.” You have all heard the expression, “Pride goeth before the Fall.” Pride can lead us to do so many awful things: to ourselves, to one another, and to God. Pride can make us lose sight of what is really most important in life. Pride can cause us to think we are better than we really are, which in turn can make us look with judgment upon those we for any reason consider as “less.” At it’s worst, pride can lead us to believe that we have no need for God. But Mary now declares that God in Christ Jesus ends pride. Because when we remember that any blessing we experience, any accomplishment we enjoy, is a result of God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ, there is no way we can be proud.