After receiving the angel’s message of the special child she would bear and name Jesus, the Virgin Mary traveled from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to visit her relative, Elizabeth. There, Elizabeth exclaimed to her prophetically that she would bear the Lord Christ, and in response Mary broke forth in a beautiful song of exaltation beginning with: My soul glorifies the Lord … (Luke 1:46-55).
I visualize this outbreak of joy and amazement as beginning at the entrance to Elizabeth’s humble dwelling when the two women greeted each other and began to share their stories.
Months later, eight days after Elizabeth’s baby was born (to become John the Baptist), the infant was taken for circumcision and naming. There was some disagreement among friends and relatives about the name, some of whom expected the baby would be named after his father, Zechariah.
As you will recall, Zechariah was unable to speak. This was punishment for his disbelief when the Angel Gabriel made promise of the baby’s coming birth. At that time, Gabriel had also told Zechariah what the baby was to be named. Now, in obedience, Zechariah settled the community discussion by writing on a tablet, “His name is John” (1:62-63).
With that, Zechariah’s powers of speech were restored and the Holy Spirit came upon him. He began to prophesy in a second hymn-like burst of praise, beginning with: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them … (1:68). It’s a long prophecy full of a great hope for Israel.
Luke then tells us about a group of shepherds who some months later were in the region near Bethlehem guarding their sheep from the perils of the night. Unexpectedly, an angel of the Lord appeared and the region glowed with a heavenly light so beyond the ordinary that it terrified them.
The angel first spoke calming words, assuring them that nothing in this extraordinary moment should frighten them. Then followed his message: I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (2:10-11).
The heavenly messenger then gave simple instruction on where to find the baby: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (2:12).
As soon as this message was delivered, the lone messenger was joined by a vast company of the heavenly host filling the nighttime skies with their radiance. The heavenly choir sang the third song in the Christmas account: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (2:14). Due to this special announcement, the shepherds were the first visitors to the newborn baby Jesus, God’s Messiah.
Finally, Luke writes that when the time for Mary’s purification came (forty days after the child’s birth), the parents appeared at the temple to offer two pigeons, the sacrifice required of the poor, and to present their firstborn to God, all in keeping with Jewish law.
While in the temple, this couple was met by Simeon, who was a regular presence there. Simeon not only was a righteous and devout man but a man living under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He expected to see God’s Messiah — the consolation of Israel — before leaving this life.
That day Simeon, by divine appointment, met Joseph and Mary and the six-week-old baby Jesus. He took the baby into his arms and there on the spot sang a song of praise to God: Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation (2:29-30).
And before Joseph and Mary had even left the temple that day they were accosted by yet another constant worshiper — a prophet named Anna. She was 84 and had been widowed after seven years of a marriage. She had given her life to worship and never left the temple, spending her time there in fasting and prayer.
When she came upon the couple with a baby she too discerned instantly what his unique mission would be. From her, there was no fifth song but she gave public thanks to God and spoke prophetically about the child to other worshipers who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel.
Luke tells the story of that first Christmas as having been saturated with song. The Almighty was manifesting his glory in Jesus the Son and believers were responding. And to this day choirs gather in cathedrals and house churches and even in the aisles of department stores or hospital wards to sing the good news; a Savior has been born — Christ the King.
Along with Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon, when we observe Christmas well may we also break into song — to the glory of God.
Photo credit: Shehal Joseph (via flickr.com)