The Word Among Us

Advent 2009 Issue

Sing a New Song

God wants to lift us up and fill us with his riches.

Sing a New Song: God wants to lift us up and fill us with his riches.

Upon a visit to his hometown synagogue, Jesus was invited to read from the Hebrew Scriptures and offer a commentary.

Jesus opened the scroll and began to read a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah. The prophecy spoke about the Spirit of the Lord empowering the prophet to bring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, and to proclaim "a year acceptable to the Lord" (Luke 4:19).

When Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking about those who are literally poor, imprisoned, and needy. But he was also talking about those who are spiritually poor, imprisoned by sin and injustice, and unable to see a way out. So as we take one more look at Luke’s infancy narratives, let’s confess that with Jesus we are rich, but without him we are poor, desolate, and lost. In many ways, this is the heart of Luke’s Christmas message. And we#8217;ll find this message most clearly if we look at the canticles that Luke includes in his story.

Three Canticles. A canticle is a hymn of praise to God from the Bible. Luke—who tradition tells us was an artist as well as a physician—included three beautiful canticles in his infancy narrative. The most familiar one is Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, also sings a song of praise to God at the birth of his son (1:68-79). And the final canticle is sung by Simeon as he holds the infant Christ in his arms at the Temple (2:29-32).

Most scholars believe that it is unlikely that Mary, Zechariah, or Simeon actually spoke these words. Rather, Luke probably grafted these songs into his story, drawing from a number of Old Testament sources. These canticles are also written so well that it would be hard to accept that Mary or Simeon or Zechariah composed them on the spot as spontaneous prayers. For instance, Mary’s Magnificat makes free use of Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Zechariah’s song, also known as the Benedictus, relies heavily on the psalms (Psalms 41:14; 72:18; 106:48;111:9; Psalm 132:16-17).

When Luke includes the Magnificat, he is inviting us to take a moment to honor Mary and to take a deeper look at her faith. Luke wants to affirm Mary’s faith and her desire to give God glory. It’s also not by chance that Luke includes a few warnings in this song. He tells us that humility, not pride, will be honored and that the hungry will be filled, but the rich will not. Just as Mary, who hungered after God’s word and his will, was filled with his grace, so too can we be filled up if we seek the Lord.

Zechariah’s canticle, called the Benedictus, is a song of praise arising from a man who wrestled with his own unbelief and came through victorious. Zechariah had been silenced by the angel because he doubted God’s ability to give him and his wife a child in their old age. But his months of silence led to deep prayer and reflection—to the point where his first words were words of praise to the Lord.

Simeon’s prayer, also called the Nunc Dimittis, reflects a man in the twilight of his life, finally seeing his dreams come true. God had promised that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, and now he has. Having finally seen Jesus, Simeon also comes to understand that the Messiah is meant for everyone, Gentile and Jew alike.

Songs of the Poor. All three of these canticles have a common theme that runs through ancient Judaism as well as early Christianity. Each song in its own way celebrates God’s special care for the lowly, the poor, and the humble—the same ones mentioned in the prophecy that Jesus read in the synagogue. These poor ones&mdmdash;the anawim in Hebrew—included the hungry, the widowed, the orphaned, and the strangers. They stand in stark contrast to the rich, the proud, and the self-sufficient—those who did not think they had any need for God or his mercy. The poor were the ones who knew that God was their only option and that they were completely dependent on him.

Throughout his Gospel, Luke gives these poor a special place. In his infancy narrative, for instance, it is the shepherds—crude, rustic farmhands—who are privileged to hear the angels sing, not King Herod or Caesar Augustus. Again, it is Elizabeth and Zechariah—an old, barren, marginalized couple—who are chosen to bear John the Baptist. And finally, Jesus himself becomes one of these anawim. He is not born into a royal house but to a regular carpenter and his young wife. He is not dressed in fine linen robes but simple swaddling clothes. He is not put to rest on velvet sheets in a beautiful palace but on a bed of straw in a manger tucked away in an anonymous cave.

All these elements show that in Jesus, the anawim of any age can find what they are looking for. In him, they can find someone who blessed the poor and the persecuted (Luke 6:20-22). In him they can find someone who, like themselves, had "nowhere to rest his head" (9:58). In him they can find someone who entrusted himself completely to God and as a result was exalted to the throne of heaven (Luke 23:46; Acts 5:30-31).

Sing a New Song! Looking at Luke’s canticles through the lens of the anawim leads us to ask the question: "Do I believe that Jesus can answer my needs?" If the answer is "yes," then we need to follow everything that he taught and lived. The poor and lowly people of this world, both the materially poor and the spiritually poor, have nowhere else to turn. There is no other option.

This is how Jesus wants us to come to him during Advent. He wants us to sing praises to him from the depth of our hearts. He wants us to magnify the Lord as Mary did, rejoicing in God our Savior. He wants us to sing songs of praise to the Lord, as Zechariah did, because he has rescued us from the hands of our enemies sin, Satan, and death. He wants us to sing praises to Jesus, as Simeon did, because he has revealed himself and his salvation to us. We have seen his glory, and we know that we will be with him forever, even after we have been "dismissed" from this life.

The Spirit and Christmas. In scene after scene of his story, Luke goes out of his way to tell us that these humble poor are blessed and filled by the Holy Spirit. For instance, the angel greets Mary as the "favored one" (Luke 1:28). He acknowledges that God’s grace was at work in her life. It was the grace that enabled her to say "yes" to God’s plan for her, the grace that made her open to the Holy Spirit overshadowing her (1:35).

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, her simple greeting became an occasion of grace. At the mere sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit, and her baby leapt for joy (Luke 1:41,44). A few months later, when Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son was circumcised, Luke writes that his father was filled with the Holy Spirit and broke into a hymn of praise to God (1:67).

When Simeon was making his way to the Temple, wondering if today would be the day when he would finally see the Messiah, the Holy Spirit was with him (Luke 2:25). Luke even says that it was the Spirit who led him to Mary and Joseph and helped him recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of all his dreams (2:27).

Preparing the Way for Jesus.Clearly, the Spirit was moving powerfully in all the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. His work caused people to leap for joy, sing praises to the Lord, and learn how to trust in God more fully. All of these people were able to recognize Jesus in one way or another. How can it be that the doubting Zechariah was filled with the Spirit? How can it be that the barren Elizabeth was able to conceive? How can it be that the aged Simeon recognized the Messiah in a poor infant? It was by grace! It was through the power of the Holy Spirit!

Brothers and sisters, this Holy Spirit wants to pour out the same grace on us and our families. He wants all of us to recognize Jesus. Sometimes we can feel like Elizabeth, barren and forgotten by God. Sometimes we can mirror Zechariah, and doubt God’s ability to work in our lives. Sometimes we can be like Simeon, and think that our waiting will never end. Yet new hope came to each of these people when they least expected it. And just as they rejoiced because of Jesus, we too can be moved to rejoice and sing our own canticle of praise to God. May we all become poor—poor in spirit—so that Jesus can make us rich!

From the entire staff of The Word Among Us, we wish you all a happy and blessed Christmas.