Christmas would hardly feel festive without carols. Brushing aside the popular hits like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and (Christmas at its worst) “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” we are left with centuries of profound lyrics and rich liturgy. Hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Joy to the World” proclaim the character of King Jesus, incarnate in the fragile flesh of a baby. These songs, sung all around the world, praise God as revealed through the nativity.
Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56 is no different. We’ve called it a “Song of the King,” set out to declare God’s might and mercy. When Mary comprehends God’s promise made to her in Luke 1:32-33, she can only respond with a song of praise, also known as the Magnificat. This song begins by focusing on God’s love towards Mary, then His goodness to others who share her humble state, and finally His faithfulness to His covenantal people. Mary’s song therefore acts as a magnifying glass for God’s character and puts her individual experiences into the perspective of God’s grand narrative.
The Magnificat begins with a focus on God’s work in Mary’s life. Verses 46-49 contain three “for” statements, each answering the question of why her soul magnifies the Lord. She is full of praise because God has been “mindful of her humble state,” “all generations will call her blessed,” and “the Mighty One has done great things” for her. In His mercy, God chose to exalt an obscure girl from a Galilean backwater to be the mother of the Word made flesh. Out of His might, God began the work of redemption through a baby born in the obscurity of a dirty manger.
Filled with joy at God’s mercy, Mary doesn’t stop there. Verses 50-53 are almost politically subversive in their images of reversal — the mighty brought low, the hungry filled up, the rich sent away empty, and the proud scattered — but simply amplify Mary’s personal experiences to show God’s goodness to others. Mary proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven is not just for the wealthy and the powerful, but for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and the persecuted. The King does not just come to look on the humble estate of Mary but to exalt all those of humble estate. What is revealed to Mary is revealed to others through Jesus. That’s worthy of a song.
Mary’s song broadens the scope of God’s goodness once more by concluding with a nod to the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12 — the promise that through Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The ultimate display of God’s might and mercy is His covenantal faithfulness towards His people, culminating in the work of redemption and restoration through Jesus. By singing of the covenant of God in verses 54-55, Mary connects the Magnificat to the lives of Jews and Gentiles, to her contemporaries, and to modern people.
The Magnificat’s progression from small to big– from Mary to others to God’s covenant– reflects a pattern seen in other responsorial songs throughout Scripture. The Song of Moses in Exodus 15:1-18 is sung in response to God leading His people across the Red Sea and out of slavery in Egypt. Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is an exultation to the Lord after God answered her prayer for a child. Both Moses and Hannah sing in response to God’s work in their lives, and both go on to show how God’s actions reflect His goodness towards others. Both finish with a focus on God’s covenantal faithfulness. Indeed, “Songs of the King,” sung in response to God’s manifest power and promises in the lives of His people, are not uncommon in Scripture.
The beautiful truth is that God’s character is the same now as it was at the time of the Magnificat. He continues to act in mercy and power; He continues to lift up the lowly. As the Lord elevated Mary from her humble origins, he chooses us out of obscurity and gives us roles in the same narrative that Moses, Hannah, and Mary were a part of– a narrative of the world’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
Mary’s role in this narrative was to bear Christ, the means by which the world was redeemed; our role is as bearers of the Holy Spirit, the means by which we are sanctified and the world is restored.
Mary lived in light of God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel; we live under the promises of the New Covenant and in expectation of Christ’s return.
While our everyday lives may never seem as dramatic as Mary’s, the God who elevated her also lifts us up. We are all voices in the same chorus of praise; the Magnificat can be proclaimed as our anthem. Indeed, “Songs of the King” are for all believers. They show that our response to God’s actions should involve praise for His work in our individual lives, in the lives of others, and in faithfulness to His covenant. In the end, our place in God’s narrative was made possible by the One whose birth we celebrate in hymns like “O Holy Night” or “The First Noel.” This Advent, let Christmas carols remind you that your life’s praise is a Song of the King. In Jesus you are a part of God’s grand story.
Cooper Bryan ‘19 is an Economics concentrator living in Winthrop House. Ana Yee ‘21 is a History & Science concentrator living in Kirkland House.