Mary sings a song (Luke 1:46-55), a song glorifying God, a song that is still declared daily by many Christians around the world. But before we look at her song, we need to understand why she sings. Mary is expecting a child, a son, and this son’s birth will be a sign.
Mary has been told, by a messenger from God, that she will have a son. This son will be called the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. We need to understand what that would have meant to Mary. In time, Jesus’ disciples came to the conclusion that he was the Word of God made flesh. In time, the Church came to articulate their understanding of the Trinity – one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But Mary did not know that. Mary would not have understood the angel’s words to mean she was giving birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. Mary would have known that the titles Son of the Most High, or Son of God, were attributed – without any suggestion of divinity – to David, king of Israel described as a man after God’s own heart, a man who pursued obedient covenant relationship with God. A man who had unified the tribes of Israel into a nation that enjoyed peace in the land God had given them, for the first time; a man whose descendants parted company, dividing into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah; a man who was distantly related to her husband, Joseph. And her son will restore David’s throne.
What is more, Mary is a virgin; that is, a young woman. Now, listen carefully to what I am going to say. I am not denying the traditional belief that Jesus’ conception was miraculous, but we need to recognise that a virgin being with child is not, in itself, unprecedented. It has a very significant precedent, as a sign. When Judah is threatened by Israel and Damascus, the prophet Isaiah tells king Ahaz that God is giving him a sign (Isaiah 7): a virgin will have a son; before the child is old enough to know good from evil, Israel and Damascus will have been defeated by the Assyrians. So Judah will be spared from Israel and Damascus. However, Judah itself will be besieged by the Assyrians, and this will be a time of judgement unlike any they have previously known. All this came to pass. God was with Judah and miraculously intervened to bring an end to the siege of Jerusalem, but the people did not turn back to him and ultimately fell to the Babylonians instead.
God speaks to Isaiah about other sons, born to other women, as signs of what God is about to do (Isaiah 7, 8, 9). Micah also speaks of a woman who will give birth to a son (Micah 5). None of these prophecies are, in the first instance, about Jesus. But they create a ‘type’ that Jesus’ birth will fit into (which is why most are read around Christmas).
So when a young woman about to be married is told that she will have a son who will restore David’s throne, her question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” is not one of mechanics (how will I get pregnant?) but of significance: according to the precedent, a virgin with child is a sign that God will judge, not restore. And Gabriel’s reply – which is also about significance, not mechanics (yes, this birth, like several other births in Scripture, is miraculous; but Scripture is never concerned with how God does what he does, it is always concerned with what miracles signify) – is that God’s departed presence will return and cover the faithful with his protection.
Mary’s pregnancy is a sign, that God is about to act in both judgement and deliverance. And that is why Mary rejoices in song: God’s judgement and deliverance are worth rejoicing over, because the world needs both.
God’s coming judgement is worth rejoicing over, because corporately as the human race we sense that things are not right. We see that even in very recent days, not only in tragedies in our news, but also in the widespread expectation of an apocalypse – which we might laugh at, but betrays a significant recognition at least at a subconscious level, that our civilizations deserve to be judged.
God’s coming deliverance is worth rejoicing over, because corporately as the human race we long for something better, something that we recognise – again, perhaps subconsciously, and in the face of the posturing of humanism – we have not been able to achieve ourselves.
There is so much in the world – so much within each one of us – that needs turning on its head: pride scattered, rulers brought down, humility lifted up, hunger fed, greed emptied. And yet not one of us is competent to hold justice and mercy together, to meet our need for both to be done.
That is one reason why Mary’s song is still said or sung each day, at Evening Prayer.
Unless we take on the discipline of Mary’s song, we will fear God’s judgement as applied to our own lives and not embrace it.
Unless we take on the discipline of Mary’s song, we will distort the message of God’s judgement, declaring injustice against the weak to be God’s judgement on the powerful, as some Christians in America have declared the recent school shooting to be God’s judgement.
Unless we take on the discipline of Mary’s song, we will grow to doubt God’s interest in mercy, or distort it into cries for our own vindication.
But if we sing, and allow this song to shape our lives, then in countless little Christmases, Mary’s son will come into his world again, not only as a sign to his people destroyed by Rome in AD 70 and to his first disciples who survived the end of their world in that apocalyptic event, but as a sign to those who would respond in every time and place, until he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
In the words of an ancient Christian prayer prayed each year on the twenty-third of December:
O Emmanuel, our King and lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.