I love Christmas carols, but “Biblical” Christmas hymns are different from our familiar and beloved carols. These songs are rooted in the history of Abraham, Moses, David, and the desire to “ransom captive Israel.” They are found in Luke 1 and 2, surrounding the brief but more familiar hymn of the angels (Luke 2:13-14).
What does Mary sing about in Luke 1:46-55? “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Magnificat in Latin). She magnifies the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him, His generosity to the poor and hungry, His hostility to the proud and rich, and the help He gives to Israel. She sings about the fulfillment of the Lord’s promised covenant mercy. And she talks about Abraham, for all this is done to fulfill what He “spoke to our Fathers, to Abraham and to His seed forever.”
How about Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:67-79? “Blessed be the Lord…” (Benedictus in Latin). The Lord comes to accomplish redemption for His people and to bring salvation to the house of David. More specifically, this refers to a king from David’s line, a king who is going to deliver Israel from their enemies and from the hand of those who enslave them. The birth of the fore-runner to the Messiah is a sign that the Lord has “remembered His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our Father.” Day has dawned; light has shone in the darkness – but the darkness is specifically something that has overtaken Israel.
What does Simeon sing about after the birth of Jesus in Luke 2:28-32? “Now dismiss your servant in peace…”(Nunc dimittis in Latin). When he takes the infant Jesus into his arms, he thanks God “because my eyes have seen Your salvation.” And what is that? Access to heaven? Forgiveness of sins? Yes, but more! This little one is “the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
The angelic hymn sung to the shepherds should be understood in that context. Peace on earth is not some left-wing dream. It’s the promise of peace for Israel, which will lead to peace for the nations.
Before we sing any more new Christmas hymns, we all should try to learn the words of the Magnificat (Mary’s) and the Benedictus (Zechariah’s) and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s) so well that these hymns will burst forth from our hearts at Christmas. Then we will sing about Jesus’ birth in light of the promises to Abraham and David - as did Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon.—- Adapted from a post by Peter Leithart on “First Things” (12/22/12) http://bit.ly/12S522V