Jeremy Sarber / The Bible Readers Podcast

The Magnificat of Mary is a Christmas call to worship

The Magnificat (literally, magnifies) is the joyful, surprisingly eloquent response of Mary at the thought of giving birth to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).

The young virgin is enraptured by God’s miraculous gift, and her spontaneous praise serves as an excellent example for all believers. Both the essence and lyrical quality of her words are inspired. Mary’s song is a call for all of us to worship our Savior this Christmas and beyond.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Two Christmases

My opinion of Christmas is probably not the most popular. When a retail store greets me with “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I’m not bothered at all. When Starbucks serves my overpriced coffee in a plain red cup rather than one that specifically affirms the Christmas holiday, I don’t think twice about it. When someone tells me he doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I say, “That’s okay. I don’t celebrate Columbus Day.” I have no desire to fight in the so-called war on Christmas because I don’t care that the secular world is secularizing a holiday (i.e., a holy day) which God didn’t ordain in the first place.

In my mind, Christmas is two distinct events which I don’t attempt to blend together into one. The first Christmas, if you will, is a time when we exchange gifts, decorate trees, bake cookies, and make every effort to be with family. There are aspects of this Christmas that I love, some that I hate, and even more to which I’m entirely indifferent. I love that it brings families together. I hate that it fosters materialism. I can’t wait to see what I get for Christmas. As for Christmas trees, reindeer, eggnog, and the many traditions that come with it, I don’t care whether we have them or not.

The second Christmas—let’s call it the real Christmas if you don’t mind—has nothing to do with anything I’ve mentioned. It doesn’t include decorations, gift-giving, candy canes, stockings hanging from the mantle, or virtually anything else that typically comes to mind when we think of Christmas.

We can’t find this Christmas on a calendar. It doesn’t appear in December or any other month. While this Christmas does celebrate a specific day in history, its celebration is not limited to a single day. We can and should celebrate this Christmas (the real Christmas) every day of the year. Of course, I’m talking about the birth of Christ.

When December 25 rolls around, I don’t concern myself with whether or not the secular world is keeping Christ in Christmas. I don’t expect them to sing praises to God for his incarnation. I’m not threatened by the thought of unbelievers hijacking the holiday. They can have it because it never was a holy day. As far as I’m concerned, December 25 is a family-oriented tradition similar to Thanksgiving. I love the day, but it’s not the real Christmas. The real Christmas is much bigger, and it’s that Christmas which I want us to consider now.

Christmas’ Catholic origin

I realize that some Christians are opposed to any of the annual holidays such as Christmas or Easter because of their Catholic origins, so let me attempt to hone your thinking just a bit.

First of all, if not for a devout Catholic priest who rejected the gospel preached by Martin Luther, the most influential English Bible of all time wouldn’t exist. Imagine where the church would be if not for Erasmus’ New Testament which became the King James Bible, and that’s just one example. Though it may be difficult for a Baptist to admit, the Catholic Church has made valuable contributions to biblical Christianity.

Second, even though I don’t treat December 25 as a holy day, I do appreciate having a season of the year when the church is encouraged to reflect and rejoice over the birth of our Savior. Christmas serves a purpose similar to the Lord’s Supper. Though we should remember Christ’s death every day of the year, the Lord’s Supper is a special time that compels us to put the crucifixion at the forefront of our minds. Despite its faults, the Christmas season encourages us to think about the incarnation of God as no other time of the year does, and I’m thankful for it.

The praise of art

The passage I read in Luke 1 is what we often refer to as “Mary’s Song” or “The Magnificat.” It is the first Christmas poem in history. Here’s a trivia question for you: What’s the second? The answer is Zechariah’s prophecy at the end of this chapter (Luke 1:68-79).

Have you ever noticed how much of the Bible is written as poetry? If you’re using an edition of the Bible that puts each verse on a new line, then it won’t be as obvious, but at least one-third of the book is poetry. Glance back at the book of Psalms, for instance. The words are set in stanzas to group lyrics together. Chances are, God intended even more of the Bible to be read like poetry, but the style of expression changes when we translate the passages into English. Some of the original literary forms get lost.

It’s a shame that the church doesn’t appreciate the creative arts as much as it once did. For most of church history, believers used various forms of art to convey significant spiritual realities because words sometimes fail to capture their full essence.

For example, Bible publishers of the past often produced ornate designs. Their covers were thick with intricate hand-crafted details. The pages were filled with illustrations and patterns alongside the text. They didn’t create plain, black-covered books. Instead, they used artistic elements to say, “This book is no ordinary book. It’s special. Just by looking at it, we want you to know that it’s unique.”

That’s the basis for the grandiose architecture of old church buildings and cathedrals. Christians of previous generations didn’t construct elaborate places of worship to be symbols of arrogance. They wanted their sanctuaries to reflect the gravity of worshiping Almighty God. It’s not to be taken lightly, so they believed the church’s building should be considerably nicer than our houses or businesses. After all, what matters most?

Christians have used design to convey serious ideas to ourselves and the world around us. For example, the Reformers preferred large pulpits that towered over everything else in the building not to draw undue attention to the preacher himself, but to express the centrality of God’s Word in worship. One of the cries of the Reformation was sola scriptura (Scripture alone). Scripture alone is the church’s authority, and the Reformers used massive pulpits to remind everyone of that fact.

The praise of music

Music is another nonverbal art form that can express plenty without saying a word at all. The book of 1 Samuel tells us that David could drive away a troubling spirit from King Saul just by playing a harp. First Samuel 16 says, “Whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1Sa 16:23).

Remarkably, when Psalm 150 instructs us to praise God “for his mighty deeds … according to his excellent greatness,” it never once tells us to use words (Ps 150:2). Instead, it says, “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Ps 150:3-5). We are told to make a joyful noise and even dance because sometimes words alone aren’t enough to communicate how thankful we are for who God is and what he’s done for us.

Music is powerful. It is both beautiful and sophisticated. It is art and science rolled into one incredible mode of expression. That is especially true when the right words are set to the right music. When a gifted songwriter uses his or her talent to combine the teachings of the Christian faith with emotional melodies, the result can be overwhelming.

Like some of you, I grew up under a tradition that disapproved of choirs and the use of musical instruments in worship. I can remember defending that position, saying things like, “The church doesn’t need the immaculate singing of choirs or the help of instruments as long as we’re praising God from the heart.” Why, then, did David assemble a 4,000-man worship band? He organized 4,000 men to “offer praises to the Lord with the instruments” (1Ch 23:5). He also addressed some of his psalms specifically to “the choirmaster” (Ps 4:1).

But that was Old Testament worship, we think. Maybe we are to assume choirs and instruments were exclusive to worship under the old covenant. (An assumption is all we can make.) Or perhaps choirs and instruments were means by which Old Testament saints could offer their very best spiritual sacrifice of worship.

Have you ever heard the term choral anthem? I’ve known of churches that insist on congregational singing sans musical instruments with one unique song at the end known as the choral anthem. During the anthem, all of the musicians play, and the choir joins the rest of the church in singing a well-written, powerful hymn. If worship is our offering to God under the new covenant, then the choral anthem is our attempt to give him our very best.

The praise of words

My point is this: All forms of creative art have long been beloved elements of Christianity. From ornate Bibles to influential songwriting, the church has appreciated and made use of art to the glory of God. We see that even within the pages of Scripture.

The Bible itself begins with the story of God speaking the world into existence. We often ask, “How can God form something out of nothing?” We do it ourselves. It’s called creativity. An idea appears from nothing to become something. Granted, God’s creativity is far more powerful than ours, but it’s creativity nonetheless. God is the original artist.

What is God’s favorite mode of creative expression? He loves words. Psalm 33 says, “For he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps 33:9). Hebrews says, “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). To thoroughly equip the man of God, Paul says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Ti 3:16). Then, there is the introduction of John’s Gospel which says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

God created the universe with words. He sustains the universe with words. He speaks to us through his written words. His one and only Son is the Word, meaning his Son, Jesus, communicates to us the attributes and will of God. For all of the positive things we can say about art in general, literary art (i.e., words, writings, poems, lyrics) tops the list.

Music, paintings, architecture—these things can speak to us, but nothing conveys a message better than words. According to Romans 1, we can know the “invisible attributes” of God by merely looking at the world he created, yet Paul says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Ro 1:20; 10:15). People say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I wouldn’t trade a thousand words for a picture if I could choose only one.

A large pulpit in the church may represent our belief in the authority of Scripture, but not nearly as much as a preacher who faithfully teaches from Scripture’s authority week after week. A well-designed Bible may signify the exceptional value of the words it contains, but a Christian who reads and believes those words will speak much louder than a nice cover. Art goes only so far without words.

The Magnificat

In Luke 1, Mary seems to instinctively know not only the merit of words but also that God is worthy of theologically-rich, eloquently-spoken praise. Her song is spontaneous, but it flows out of her as though she has spent months preparing and rehearsing it. To clarify what I mean, notice what she does not say. She doesn’t say, “Uh, God…um, just…uh, I just want to thank you for this blessing. Just, um…you’ve been so good to me. God, you are good. Thank you. Amen.”

No, she says:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

I’m sure that you can hear the difference. In Mary’s original language, I suspect this poem sounded even smoother than it does in English. Regardless, I can’t help but notice not only the substance of her words but also the way she forms them into this beautifully-rhythmic passage.

What’s the big deal? we think. Mary was a gifted lyricist. Maybe that’s just the way people talked back then. What does that have to do with us? The answer comes only after we consider how she became so gifted. It wasn’t an accident.

The substance of Mary’s song

Look closely at these verses. If any of these expressions seem familiar to you, then it could be that you recognize them from Old Testament passages.

Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” which sounds similar to Psalm 34: “My soul makes its boast in the LORD” (Lk 1:46; Ps 34:2). She says, “For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant,” which is a direct quote from Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 11 (Lk 1:48). She says, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1:49). Psalm 89 says, “Who is mighty as you are, O LORD, with your faithfulness all around you?” (Ps 89:8).

You’ll also notice that Mary is well-versed in Israel’s history. “[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk 1:51-52).

Last but not least, she understands the prophecies of God. She knows the true significance of God’s covenant with Abraham. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Lk 1:54-55).

Mary has just learned that God has chosen her to give birth to the Messiah and runs to the only person who can possibly relate. She goes to her cousin, Elizabeth, who will give birth to John the Baptist, though she once believed herself to be barren. As soon as Mary arrives, Elizabeth knows a second miracle has taken place. She excitedly cries out:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-44)

Instantaneously, Mary begins singing this song filled with references to the Old Testament and articulated with stunning prose. How? Most of us would still be searching for the right words while Mary is on her third or fourth stanza.

In spirit and truth

In John 4, Jesus teaches:

“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

True worship has two main components: spirit and truth. By spirit, Jesus means worship is more than external rituals. Elsewhere, the Lord says, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isa 29:13). Christ insists that our worship is from the heart.

Also, our worship must be in truth. It should always be grounded in and guided by the revealed will of God. In other words, we need to engage both our hearts and minds when we worship. Our hearts need to feel, and our minds need to think. Without one or the other, our worship ceases to be worship.

Along the way, someone has probably stressed to you the importance of preparing yourself for worship. Maybe you’ve heard me or another pastor say, “Don’t just show up on Sunday morning. Spend some time in prayer. Get your heart ready before you come.” I believe that’s sound advice.

It wasn’t that long ago when we studied the book of Ecclesiastes together. Did you know it is not until Ecclesiastes 5 that the so-called Preacher offers a second-person imperative? He fills the first four chapters with first-person observations, waiting until Ecclesiastes 5 to give the first commandment (do this). What does he say? “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God” (Ecc 5:1). To put it another way, prepare yourself for worship.

Mary’s heart and mind

Was Mary prepared for worship? I have no doubts about it. She was so ready, in fact, that she didn’t need a script. She didn’t need months to carefully craft this poem. She didn’t even require a copy of 1 Samuel or the Psalms in her hand. She was more than prepared to praise God in both spirit and truth when this moment arrived. The words of Scripture (i.e., truth) were part of her native language. Her heart (i.e., her spirit) was overflowing with thankfulness and joy. She was ready to worship.

If this spontaneous praise of Mary isn’t enough to impress you, then I’ll remind you that she was a young woman. Society treated her as a second-class citizen. She never received any formal training or education. Plus, she may have been as young as thirteen or fourteen years old. She may have been a child according to our standards, yet she was more capable of worshiping God than most of the spiritual leaders in Israel.

How could this uneducated child spontaneously speak with such eloquent prose dripping with the words of God? She certainly didn’t make excuses for herself. Despite being a young woman in ancient Israel, she devoted her life to learning and memorizing Scripture. She saturated her mind with thoughts of spiritual things. She meditated on the promises of God in her heart. When this moment came, the sound of perfect praise instinctively poured from her lips.

Learning from Mary’s praise

What can we learn from Mary about worship? For the sake of time, I’ll give you the bullet points.

First, every one of us is capable of praising God. Maybe our singing or praying could use some improvement, but we can always practice more. We can always do more to prepare our hearts and minds for worship, and we should. We should want to offer God our very best, which leads to my second point.

Second, every one of us is capable of praising God with both substance and beauty. Let’s not treat worship (i.e., singing, praying, reading Scripture, and other aspects of corporate worship) as a mere science. God created not only a functional world, but he also created a beautiful world. By God’s grace, our praise can be not only an expression of the truth, but also a lovely presentation of it.

Third, every one of us is capable of praising God with both substance and beauty but only if we worship in spirit and truth. Our minds must be immersed in God’s Word, and our hearts must rejoice in all that it says.

In Mary’s case, she provides a wonderful example of worship for all of us to emulate. She displays the right attitude when she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” (Lk 1:46-48). She exalts the Lord while humbling herself.

She also directs her worship at the appropriate object when she says, “The Lord … God my Savior” (Lk 1:46-47). She’s not worshiping herself or some vague religious notion. She is praising none other than the God of Israel, our Savior.

Furthermore, she knows why she is praising God.

Mary’s reasons for worship

“For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:48-55)

If we were to summarize Mary’s reasons for worshiping God, we could list three things.

First, she praises God because “he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1:49). God chose her to bring his Son into the world. He could bestow no greater honor on anyone. The child in her womb would become the Savior of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Second, Mary praises God because “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). She quotes Psalm 103 to show that Christ will mercifully redeem people from now to the end of time.

Finally, she remembers how this present blessing connects to the past. God has been redeeming his people from the very beginning. For example, he saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. “He has shown strength with his arm … he has brought down the mighty from their thrones. … He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy” (Lk 1:51-52; 54).

The gospel of God

Mary says, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Lk 1:54-55). Do you remember God’s promise to Abraham? He said:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3)

Paul writes of that prophecy, saying, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham” (Gal 3:8-9).

Mary realizes that the child in her womb will not be an ordinary boy. She also knows that the prophecies concerning the Messiah imply that he will be much more than a typical king in Israel. He will be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. His kingdom will reach well beyond the borders of Israel. Mary will give birth to God in the flesh, and he will save countless people from their sins both Jews and Gentiles.

I believe Mary understands Paul’s Christ-centered creed in Romans 1:

The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations. (Romans 1:1-5)

Mary seems to grasp what is to come. In her heart, she knows the gospel. She sees what Paul was able to articulate using only fifteen words in Greek: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co 5:21).

Mary is carrying the one whom the book of Philippians describes as:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

For those reasons, Mary rejoices. She sings a beautiful praise to God because he is worthy of every word.

A Christmas call to worship

If you ask me, I’ll tell you the birth of Christ is worth celebrating. I want to celebrate it every day. I also want to prepare my heart and mind Monday through Saturday to celebrate it with you on Sunday morning. I want to read about God’s incarnation and its marvelous implications. I want to sing about it. I want to write about it. I want to talk about it. I want to pray because I know that Jesus is my Mediator.

When I’m unwrapping presents with family on December 25, I want to reflect on the birth of Christ. When I’m suffering through the heat of a North Carolina summer, I want to reflect on the birth of Christ. The time of year doesn’t matter to me. I want to always think about the day when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).

Furthermore, I want my praise and thanksgiving to fully reflect how I feel in every way possible. I could merely wing my public prayers when we’re together, or I could pray enough throughout the week that my corporate prayers come naturally and gracefully. I could hope that we sing only my favorite hymns (the ones I’m better at singing), or I could practice singing all of the songs. God deserves my best, and I want to give him my best. After all, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

If we sing to the glory of God, let us strive to sing like angels. If we pray to the glory of God, let us hope that our prayers can be as beautiful as the psalms of David. If we play music to the glory of God, let us fill the room with the sounds of heaven. If we dance to the glory of God, let our movements be like that of the carefree child who doesn’t have a worry in the world because “death is swallowed up in victory” (1Co 15:54). If we speak to the glory of God, let our words be rich with the truth of Scripture.

Let our spiritual sacrifices be the very best we have to offer.