The Ante-Magnificat

four_col_Magnificat_MSI don’t celebrate Christmas. Not really. And I don’t say, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” because I don’t believe He was ever there. At least not in what our culture has come to know as Christmas. But before you paint me with pine tar and turkey feathers and run me out of town on a yule log, please hear me out.

What we call, “Christmas,” today is an event fueled by commercialism, secularism, romanticism, and paganism.  I have no problem with celebrating the birth of Christ. None at all. I love Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” I like turkey and cranberries. I give special gifts to the people I cherish. I value time with my family. I like the smell of balsam firs and freshly-baked cookies. I enjoy times of quiet contemplation and nighttime walks in the snow. I love reading O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi” and “Gian-Carlo Menotti’s, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” But none of these things has any real bearing on the Incarnation.

So when December rolls around, I begin doing two things every year: studying the gospel account of the birth of Christ, and listening to Handel’s MESSIAH. Each of these activities helps me to focus on my real appreciation for this time of year, disconnected as it is from the more likely timing of the Incarnation around Passover. One of my goals as I undertake my annual reading and listening is to learn something new.

This year, Madeleine and I are reading Luke’s account of Christ’s birth together. In Luke 1, I was struck with two things.

The first is the fact that Zechariah, John’s father, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, ask the Angel Gabriel the same question: “How?”

Upon hearing the announcement of the barren Elizabeth’s delivery of a son in her old age, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (LUK 1.18) Gabriel tells him he will be mute until John’s birth: “…because you did not believe my words.” Zechariah’s question is related to the possibility of John’s conception.

Jesus’ conception was even more improbably than John’s, though they were both miraculous. When Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God, she also asks, “How?”  Her question concerns the process of Jesus’ conception, not the possibility: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (LUK 1.34) She believes the angel, but wonders how God will bring this about.

The same question. Two different reasons for asking it.

The second thing I noticed this year is Mary’s summation of her exchange with the Angel Gabriel. After he explains how she will conceive and tells her that Elizabeth is already pregnant, he reminds her that “…nothing will be impossible with God.” (LUK 1.37) In the next verse, Mary responds simply, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Would that God would give me Mary’s believing heart and submissive will!

“Wedding gowns? Aisle 4, right next to the shotguns.”

Juxtaposition is a literary device that places seemingly incongruous ideas close together for effect. It is used often in the Scriptures, and occasionally in advertising marquees.

I recently heard a great message on Luke 1.5-29 and was struck with the juxtaposition of Zechariah, the father of John the baptizer, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each was visited by Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, and given the same news: “You’re going to have a son!” While their circumstances were similar in some regards, their responses were very different.

Zechariah was an old man–he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, were “advanced in years.” (v. 7) Mary, on the other hand, was a young teenager. She was also childless, but not because she was barren. She was a virgin. (I almost feel like I should explain that term.)

For Elizabeth, the reproach of barrenness (v. 25) would be replaced by the wonder of motherhood. As an elderly woman bearing a child, she would be a sensation in the community. Today, she would likely be written up in a medical journal and interviewed by Oprah. Mary, on the other hand, would be treated with suspicion and contempt as the obvious bearer of a bastard child.

Both Zechariah and Mary are troubled by the appearance of the angel, and understandably so. (vv. 12, 29) It is interesting, though, that Zechariah is troubled by the very appearance of the angel and Mary is “greatly troubled” by what the angel says to her. Gabriel understands this and acknowledges their fears are different when he reassures them.

When given the news that after many years of fervent prayer God had finally answered him, (v. 13) Zechariah responds with skepticism–the default setting of the human heart. He asks the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (v. 18) Gabriel reminds him that just moments before, he had been in the presence of the Almighty and had been sent away expressly to deliver this good news to Zechariah. (v. 19) As a rebuke for the priest’s faithless rebuttal, God causes him to be mute until the day of John’s circumcision.

Mary, however, simply asks how, as a virgin, she will be able to bear a child. She does not doubt it will happen, but wonders about the mechanics. Though a young girl, she is not naive about the facts of life and understands that even though she is betrothed to Joseph, their marriage will not be consummated until after Jesus is born. Gabriel honours her forthright question with an explanation that satisfies her, and she replies, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”(v. 38)

Later, when Mary visits Elizabeth and the two compare notes on their miraculous pregnancies, Mary’s soul bursts into a powerful, spontaneous psalm of praise to God that demonstrates her spiritual maturity, her humility and her theological acumen even as a middle-school aged girl. (Juxtapose her with the middle schoolers you know.) The contrast between this Magnificat and Zechariah’s silence is striking.

Mary’s response to Gabriel is a good lesson for us. When we pray, we should pray in faith and not be shocked when the God for whom “nothing will be impossible” (v. 37) answers us. We will not always understand God’s methods, and sometimes He will offer no explanation when we ask Him. But we can rejoice in His goodness and humbly surrender to His will, just as that young peasant girl did two millennia ago.

(The above photo was taken about ten years ago at Hussey’s General Store in Windsor, Maine.)