SING FOR JOY
Singing is a big part of the celebration of Christmas. Christmas carols and Christmas songs are continually in the air at this time of year. There’s just something about Christmas that makes you want to sing.
In A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas describes as a boy going carolling with some of his young friends. This was a tradition that was very much alive and well when I was a child in Wales. You would gather together a group of friends and go from house to house singing Christmas carols, hoping that in return the grateful homeowners would give you a sixpence, or something of equivalent value.
In Dylan Thomas’s recollections of doing this, he describes a scene that didn’t turn out quite the way he expected. He writes:
... I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house...
The singing of songs has been part of Christmas right from the very beginning. In fact, there are songs embedded right in the Christmas story itself. In Luke’s version of the Christmas story, there’s one song after another. We have the song of Zechariah on the occasion of the birth of his son, John the Baptist. We have the song of the heavenly host, praising God before the shepherds, saying, “Glory to God in the highest.” We have the song of Simeon, who takes the baby Jesus in his arms in the temple and says, “Sovereign Lord, now dismiss your servant in peace.” And, of course, we also have the song of Mary – a song that is also known as the Magnificat.
These weren’t necessarily songs that were sung to music – although they could well have been. They were songs in the sense that they expressed deep feelings in the heightened language of poetry. Luke the gospel writer shows us that Jesus’ birth had such an effect on people that they couldn’t adequately express themselves in anything other than song.
If you know music, you know there are different types of singing, and there are different types of songs. Music can express the full range of human emotion, from great joy to deep sadness. There’s an entire category of sad music known as the blues. When you think of Mary’s situation, and all the troubles she faced, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the song she sang was a blues song.
That may sound odd, because we don’t usually associate Christmas with the blues. Believe it or not, there are some Christmas blues songs. I came across one this week, but there was something about it that just didn’t work. It was a song written in 1929 about a man who is in jail for Christmas, which you have to admit is a pretty depressing thought. But the words somehow don’t quite get it right, especially when the man sings, “This food here, Santa, it ain’t fit to eat./ Won’t you come and bring me a plate of turkey meat?”
Perhaps a better songwriter would come up with a better Christmas blues song. And maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, because we have to admit that for some people this is quite a sad time of the year. The reason for this, I’ve heard it said, is that at Christmas you remember what you have lost. This is particularly the case for people who have recently lost loved ones. People living with the sadness of such a loss don’t really have much appetite for a holly, jolly Christmas. They’d be more inclined to sing something in a minor key.
Mary would have had every reason to do the same thing. She had lost a lot. Her mysterious pregnancy had brought public shame on her. For a time, her entire future was put in question. Her husband-to-be faced a lot of pressure to call off their wedding. And if that happened, she could forget about ever getting married to anyone else. In light of this, we should probably view the three month visit she made to her cousin Elizabeth as an escape to a place of refuge while the people of her town worked themselves up into a frenzied state over what to do about her.
Thankfully, God intervened at just the right time, and as a result Joseph took Mary home as his wife. The immediate effect of this was to protect Mary from harm. But even Joseph couldn’t put an end to the whispers and murmurs. Even years later, when Jesus was fully engaged in his public ministry, the people of his town were still saying nasty things. In Mark’s gospel we learn that when Jesus returned to his hometown and started teaching in the synagogue, the people were amazed. They said, “Where did this man get these things? Isn’t this Mary’s son?” And, Mark says, they took offense at him.
It’s subtle, but what they said was a very serious insult in those days. Note that they didn’t call him Joseph’s son. They knew very well that Joseph had married Mary. But they still didn’t call him Joseph’s son. They called him Mary’s son. In other words, they were saying that his father was unknown. They were saying he was illegitimate. They were saying that Mary’s mysterious pregnancy was still casting a shadow over the family.
Mary, then, had every reason to sing a sad song at Christmas. She had every reason to lament her fate, and to express her regret at everything she had lost. She had every reason to be down.
But when she breaks into song in her cousin Elizabeth’s presence, there is nothing the least bit sad about it. Instead Mary sings with joy. She says, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” This is no blues song. It’s a song of explosive joy – a song that radiates with triumphant jubilation.
Where in the world does this joy come from? It comes from Mary’s insight into the amazing thing that God is doing. The people of her town may not see the true state of things, but Mary knows in the depths of her heart what is really going on. For Mary this explosion of joy is pretty much involuntary. It comes from her great happiness in seeing things as they really are.
The 19th century evangelist Billy Bray had a bit of an inkling of what this kind of joy is like. When he spoke of what God had done in his life, he used words that Mary could easily have added to her song. He said, “In an instant the Lord made me so happy that I cannot express what I felt. I shouted for joy. I praised God with my whole heart… Everything looked new to me, the people, the fields, the cattle, the trees. I was like a new man in a new world. I can’t help praising the Lord. As I go along the street, I lift up one foot, and it seems to say ‘Glory;’ and I lift up the other, and it seems to say ‘Amen;’ and so they keep up like that all the time I am walking.”
Like for Billy Bray, the whole world looked new to Mary, and as a result she couldn’t help praising the Lord. She couldn’t help singing for joy. She couldn’t help saying “Glory” and “Amen” with her whole being.
Mary knew that she had received God’s blessing on her in an unparalleled way. She knew that despite what her neighbours currently thought about her, she would be called blessed by all generations coming after her. She was just a humble maidservant, but God had done great things for her. God had considered her worthy to be the mother of the Messiah. God had set her apart for a role that would never be equalled. The people of her town may have tried to heap shame on her, but God had given her an honour like no other. He had honoured her by choosing her to give birth to the Saviour of the world.
This in itself would have been enough to send Mary into raptures of joy. This in itself would have been enough to prompt Mary to break out in song. But Mary can see not just how this will affect her personally. She can see how it will affect the whole world. Because of what God is doing in her, she is able to see the brand new world that God is bringing about.
This brand new world is a fulfilment of the promises God had previously made to his people. These were promises of salvation – promises that would bring unmatched joy when they were fulfilled. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the salvation of Israel. “The ransomed of the Lord will return,” he said. “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
By God’s grace, Mary was able to see these promises coming to fruition. She was able to see that God had remembered to merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he had promised.
And Mary could see these promises coming to fruition in very specific ways. She said, “God has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
It’s fascinating that Mary speaks of these things as if they have already happened, even though it must have been obvious as she looked around that the proud were still sitting on their thrones, and the hungry were still longing to be filled. It’s as if Mary is staring down the corridors of time and getting a glimpse of the future that God is going to bring about. She’s looking through the lens of what God has revealed to her, and she can see the mighty deeds God is about to perform. And having seen already what God has done for her, she can tell that this great transformation is as good as done. The God who called her to be the mother of the Son of God will certainly bring about everything else that he has promised.
It’s because Mary can see the world this way that she can sing for joy. And when she sings, she invites us to join her in song. She shows us that we too can sing for joy, if we just look deeply into what God is doing in our midst.
Barbara Brown Taylor says talking about joy may seem desperately out of place in a world where so much seems to be going wrong. She says, “Who can be joyful while babies starve and teenagers shoot each other and whole tribes of people try to wipe each other off the face of the earth? It’s hard to get jump-up-and-down joyful about any of that. Only joy has never had very much to do with what is going on in the world at the time. That is what makes it different from happiness, or pleasure, or fun. All of those depend on positive conditions—good health, good job, happy family, lots of toys. The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means that it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, [or] in an intensive care waiting room.”
The presence of God, even the midst of the most difficult situations, gives us hope – the kind of hope that Mary had – the kind of hope that reminds us that the world is not what it may seem, and a new reality is on the way – a kingdom in which the suffering are comforted, the humble are lifted up, and the hungry are filled with good things.
This is the kingdom that we can see with the eyes of faith. And it’s also the kingdom we can give witness to by doing our own part to comfort the suffering, lift up the humble, and fill the hungry with good things. This is what our White Gifts are all about. This is what the Christmas Assistance Program is all about. It’s about demonstrating that God is already present in the world, bringing his promises to fulfilment. By giving gifts to those in need, we are not just performing acts of charity. We are making a statement about the God we serve. We are glorifying God. We are joining our voices to Mary’s song.
This Christmas, as we remember the mighty deeds God has done, is doing, and will do in the future, may our souls glorify the Lord, and may our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour. And as we make our way through the world, may our very footsteps say “Glory”