Christmas is coming, and most of us are busy getting ready for a joyous time with family and friends. For weeks now we have heard the music of Christmas, including both the sacred carols and the secular songs that have become so much a part of the season. And we have seen the Christmas advertisements urging us to buy and buy for our loved ones.
The Christmas season has surely been engulfed by consumerism, and Christmas has largely become something far different from a religious holiday. Many who have little appreciation for the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth use Christmas as an excuse for marketing their wares, publicizing their entertainment, and enhancing their income.
Even in Japan, where fewer than 2% of the population are Christians, Christmas is widely celebrated. Department stores are filled with Christmas decorations and Christmas carols are heard almost everywhere. Years ago I even saw a sign in front of some dive advertising “Christmas Nudes.”
There is another side of the Christmas message that is not emphasized so much, especially in this country. This side of Christmas is expressed by Mary’s song as recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. That song has long been called the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin translation.
Numerous composers have written music for Mary’s song. For example, “The Magnificat in D Major” is a major vocal work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mozart, Vivaldi, and others wrote shorter musical pieces titled Magnificat. It has been said that there is no single passage of Scripture more frequently set to music.
Still, the content of Mary’s song has often been overlooked, although it has been widely emphasized in recent decades by many South American Christians. In his engaging book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984), theology professor Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) wrote about the political and economic significance of Mary’s song, which includes the words, “God has . . . brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53, NIV).
(Drawing by Dan Erlander; used with his permission.)
To those who are suffering from hunger and humiliation, those are hopeful words. And since there have been so many hurting people there, Brown wrote that in Latin America, “there are few biblical passages more widely used than Mary’s song.” He also declares that “Mary’s song is a call to revolutionary action.”
Several years earlier, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-97) wrote a book titled The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (1971). That original revolution, he states, is expressed in Mary’s song. The desired and decisive change, though, is not brought about by violence. Jesus, after all, was born as the “Prince of Peace.” Still, the central message of Mary’s song—and the central message of Christmas—is that Jesus’ birth was intended by God as good news for the poor.
How are we helping, how can we help, make Christmas what God intends for it to be?