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Four Songs of Christ’s Birth

At this time of year, we hear a lot of songs about the birth of Christ. The oldest and the greatest of them come from the Scriptures. In the beginning of Luke, two chapters contain the longest account of Jesus’ birth. Moreover, the story is interrupted four times by prophetic songs of joy for what God has done in Jesus.

Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The first is traditionally called the Magnificat, a title taken from the opening words of the song. Mary says that her soul “glorifies the Lord.” For Mary, the story of Israel’s redemption has become personal. The rescuer of the fallen world lives in her womb. God’s hope is not distant or theoretical. It is personal and fully present in the world of even the humblest of creatures. This birth marks the beginning of God’s exaltation of the humble and his judgment of the proud.

Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79). Zechariah prophecies of the role his son, John, would play in the story of Israel. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” John represented God’s faithfulness. He has been faithful to the covenant of Abraham and the promises to David. For Zechariah in particular, it once again takes on a personal element. John is also a sign of God’s remembrance of Zechariah’s own long life of service. God has given the priest a son, and the nation a redeemer.

The Angel’s Gloria (Luke 2:10-14). This story opens again with humble characters, shepherds tending their flocks by night. An angel comes to announce Christ’s birth, not to King Herod or the Roman Emperor, but to lowest and most common of men. After telling the good news of Christ’s birth in the city of David, the sky opens and the joy of heaven’s host bursts into the world of men. Heaven and earth are meeting, and the angels exclaim, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:27-33). Luke’s story draws to its close with the story of a man who waited. Simeon believed that God would bless Israel, and he waited hopefully for that day to come. When Joseph and Mary take their son to be dedicated, Simeon prophetically speaks a hymn traditionally called Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “Now you dismiss …”). God had acted, and the lifelong vigil of Simeon had come to an end. “For my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Today and throughout the year, Christians should celebrate with Mary the personal arrival of God in the human world. We should sing with Zechariah about the gift of life and the faithfulness of God. With the angels, we should sing the glorious praise of the One who does all these things for his creatures. With Simeon, we thank God for rewarding patience and bringing light into this dark world.

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