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Pop Quiz:

1)    Was Luke there when Mary sang?

2)    What language was the song in?

This is the third week in the Christmas month before the Christmas week. I wish to dwell on the idea of praise in Luke 1.  The settings of two particular praises are noteworthy.

First, we have Mary’s song called the “Magnificat” in Lk. 1.46-56.  The setting of the song was the conversation with Elizabeth about the birth of the Christ.  Elizabeth then gave a prophecy about the baby.  Mary broke into songs.  I wonder what exactly happened.  Did someone hurry up and got some paper and pen to write this great song down?  Did someone say, “Wait, Mary, before you sing, hold on a second.”

Second, we have the song of Zachariah in Lk. 1.67-79.  The setting was also prophecy after the birth of John the Baptist.  I wonder again how someone was able to grasp such a long song and put it down in order to pass on to Luke. Did someone say, “Wait, let me get my pen out first … then you can sing”?

Both songs create a puzzle for us.  How did Luke get hold of these songs? I think the process is rather long but simple.  Upon the original singing, someone had asked both singers to repeat what they had said and preserved the songs in church tradition, probably to some kind of music.  I suspect the early church “hymnbooks” were mostly the Psalms and some such songs created by the faith community originating in situations such as Mary and Zachariah.  Luke took the sources from such hymn collections.  It is not important that such songs were originally sung in Aramaic. Such songs were probably passed down orally and translated into writings quite early.  Probably their performance would reshape and formed the final form from which Luke adopted for his story.  Their final preservation in Greek had carried on the praise for later generations.

The beautiful song that has been made immortal by the early church addressed Mary’s situation.  Lest we’re under the mistaken notion that all is well, all is not well.  Christmas is our fairy tale, our great escape from the ugliness of the world.  The degree of ugliness varies.  I heard one nice man getting the notice that his company was closing his branch and he was going to be laid off.  His wife is pregnant.  Other people are just stressed because of the economy and uncertainty.  More ugliness!  Sadly, we’re reminded this Advent that enormous ugliness can happen in a sleepy and affluent little town called Newtown, CT, not in the big scary metropolis (with gang bangers and drug dealers) but in a sleepy little town.  The first Christmas was far from the happy paradise of Christian myth makers.  For Mary, the first Christmas was a social nightmare.

Mary was only engaged to Joseph to be married.  She now had to explain this strange tale about a supernatural birth.  She had to tell people that angel Gabriel appeared to her.  All this sounds much like a fairy tale.  We can imagine the cynic saying, “Sure.  That’s a new joke, right?”  Mary also had to bear the shame of unwed pregnancy (in those day, this was a big deal).  People around her were filled with unbelief (e.g. Lk. 1.18).  I think popular Christianity tends to sensitize the Christmas story by negating all the negative elements around it.  This is why Christmas has been so misrepresented by the church.  We don’t want the ugly bits.  Can anyone in such a time sing praises?  The praise is not merely for good times, but also (or especially) for not-so-great times.  Praising God is no indication that the pressure’s off.  Mary praised God in spite of all the pressure on her young shoulders. If I were to preach an Advent sermon about this passage, I would call it, “Praise under Pressure.”

This Christmas, we should be reminded of the importance of praise and worship so that the praise will pass from one generation to the next. After the gifts are open and their memory long gone, the praises remain.

An Advent prayer: Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the ways of Your Only begotten-Son, that we may attain to serve You with purified minds, through His advent. Who with You lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.[1]

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