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Dec23MonThe story of Christ’s birth is so remarkable, it needed to be expressed in song. December 23, 2019 by Major Bruce Power
Most of us are familiar with the central song of the Christmas story. A reference to shepherds living in the fields, whiling away night hours, sets the scene. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appears, the glory of God shines and the shepherds are terrified. The angel announces “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” the birth of a Saviour, the Messiah. Then a great company of the heavenly host appears and bursts forth in song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests” (see Luke 2).
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It is a joyous celebration, a fervent proclamation that tears through the separation between divine and human realms with a transformative message. God’s desire to fill the entire cosmos with his blessing and peace seems clear.
Prose tells stories and develops discourse. Poetry paints pictures and invites engagement. The songs of Christmas— expressions of marvel and wonder, embedded in narrative—call us to fresh contemplation of the divine and human. The gospel was born in song.
The initial chapters of Luke describe events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and carefully intertwine song and story in character description. First, John the Baptist’s birth is described in a manner that mirrors the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, a child given by God when human conception seemed impossible. Luke provides significant markers in the narrative description of Zechariah. An elderly priest chosen by divine lot to do service within the temple, he encounters the angel of God. He and his wife, Elizabeth, like Abraham and Sarah of old, have lived the pain of lifelong barrenness, all hope of an heir set aside.
But now a son is announced. A son who will be a prophet “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” This prophet will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”’ (Luke 1:17). Like Abraham, Zechariah questions the divine promise. “How can I be sure of this?” (Luke 1:18). Zechariah is struck mute in his unbelief, but when John is born, “his mouth was opened ... and he began to speak, praising God” (Luke 1:64), his words filled with allusions to and citations of Israel’s hymnic and prophetic tradition. It is song generated in partnership between the Spirit of God and pious human reflection: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:68-69).
The editorial note at the conclusion of Zechariah’s song reinforces John’s role as the renewed and final prophetic voice of old Israel: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80). It is the climactic song of the old era.
While the birth of John and its wondrous mystery mirrors the story of the birth of Isaac, demonstrating the incredible power of God to transform barrenness, the birth of Jesus to a young girl, a virgin, is even more incomprehensible. It is the start of the glorious work of redemption, intended to bless Israel and “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12:3).
We read of Mary’s embrace of her role in this divine plan—“I am the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38)—but it is when Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, blesses Mary, that the young woman bursts into song: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49).
Luke’s narrative balances male and female prophetic witness. Both young, virginal Mary and old, childless Zechariah question: “How can this be?” (see Luke 1:18, 34), yet they open themselves to the possibilities of God’s newness, to the transformation of their world to achieve the purposes of God. These songs of Mary and Zechariah precede the song of the celestial choir, and with the song of Simeon on the eighth day of Jesus’ life frame and highlight the divine chorus.
Simeon recognized the events unfolding before him, for the Holy Spirit had revealed to him “that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26). Holding infant Jesus in the temple courts, he declares: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
The parents marvel and wonder at these words and Simeon’s counsel that their child will “cause the falling and rising of many” and be “a sign that will be spoken against” and a revealer of hearts (Luke 2:34-35). To Mary, he says, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35). His affirmation is confirmed by the prophet Anna, who “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
The Story of Redemption
The story of Christ’s birth is so remarkable that it requires lyrical outpourings. The prophetic allusions and poetic reflections of these songs celebrate the transformation of barrenness and the wonder of life emerging in circumstances that defy comprehension. They remember the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, breaking through decades of barrenness and infertility. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s lives replay this narrative of sterility, rendered all the more tragic as it nuances the quiet desperation of the people of God in an era of Roman occupation. The birth of Jesus anticipates the newness of life and resurrection power that will launch a new era.
Paul and early Christian hymnists reflect on the work of redemption through the cross and Christ’s Resurrection in poetic form, but Luke’s concern is to tell this part of the story as achingly raw narrative. Luke’s second volume begins to describe what these events mean for the world as the risen Christ declares: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
To Express the Inexpressible
The wonder expressed in Spirit-driven and directed song is not to be understood as divine dictation. The words flow out of deep reflection on the ways and work of God, the Spirit affirming and nuancing the deepest attempts at conveying the inexpressible. And so, too, does Scripture anticipate the resonance of the reader who is open to the nudging and inspiration of God’s Spirit, transforming these reflections of someone else’s encounter with God in the remote and inaccessible past, to empowering words of prophetic currency.
These are songs intended to transform barrenness, to excite hope, to anticipate transformation, to enable us to discover with fresh intensity the work of God in our world, the power of resurrection in our lives, the presence of Jesus in our world.
This Spirit-evoked discourse describes the central event of human history, the Incarnation—God’s grace and substance manifest in human body, and the unveiling of the divine plan. But the incomprehensible plan, shrouded in mystery for ages, now manifest in the birth of a child, announced by angels, witnessed by mortals, attested by prophets, remains unfathomable at its core. God is with us. Immanuel.
Major (Dr.) Bruce Power is a retired Salvation Army officer and an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
Illustration: OlgaPtashko/iStock via Getty Images Plus