For weeks, we have been hearing the songs of Christmas. And, yes, they do begin earlier every year!
Whether it’s “Joy to the World, ” “Frosty the Snowman,” or “Grandma Got Run over by a Raindeer,” the packagers of motivational music care little about meaning, so long as the bottom line is–well, the bottom line.
Where can we look for–and listen for–songs that celebrate the Incarnation, rather than the selling season? There is no better place to find insight than in the songs from the biblical account.
Luke’s gospel contains four Nativity Canticles: the songs of Mary (Lk 1:46-55), Zechariah (Lk 1:68-79), the angels (Lk 2:14) and Simeon (Lk 2:29-32). All must have had great meaning for the first tellers and hearers of the story. People of faith always sing what is most important in their lives. Each song can deliver to us, and to our culture, significant insights about the Incarnation as a world-changing event.
Mary’s “Magnificat” (the songs are often identified by their first words in Latin, because of their long use by the church) echoes the song of Hannah (1 Sam 2). It has the same declaration that God will put things right in surprising ways.
Zechariah’s “Benedictus” recalls the rich language of prophecy in telling of the salvation that the Messiah brings to Israel. The “Gloria in excelsis” of the angels juxtaposes the praise of God with the message of peace to those on earth.
Simeon’s “Nunc dimittis” gives thanks for the revelation of the one who will save not only Israel but also the Gentiles.
It is one thing to read these biblical songs. It is quite another to sing them. Because when we sing, we hope to enact the songs in a way that may lead to fuller embodiment in our living.
The Baptist Hymnal includes paraphrases of two of the songs as well as numerous hymns that refer to the song of the angels. These can serve as scripture readings or be used in dialogue with spoken scripture, enriching our experience and understanding.
James Quinn’s “Blessed Be the God of Israel” paraphrases Zechariah’s song. Though The Baptist Hymnal does not include the song of Simeon, versions can be found in several other current hymnals. For example, “Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs” contains three different paraphrases. This text makes a splendid prayer of blessing following the hearing of the Christmas story.
Of the songs and hymns that recall the canticle of the angels, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” is particularly poignant. This text, written in the shadow of United States military interventions and the sectionalism that would lead to the Civil War, portrays the willing deafness that leads to conflict and oppression, while urging us to listen for and heed the song the angels sing.
The most striking of the canticles, in its implications for our discipleship, is Mary’s. It is an acknowledgment that God has favored us. It is a recognition that God is turning the world of greed and power upside down. And it is an opportunity to align ourselves with the purposes of God.
Timothy Dudley-Smith’s powerful rendition, “Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord,” is a clarion call in both word and music. The repeated phrase that begins each stanza echoes the translation of the New English Bible, which was just off the press when Dudley-Smith wrote his rendition.
This Christmas, as we turn aside from the din of the mall for corporate worship and private devotion, we may listen to and sing anew the songs of the gospel. We may proclaim–and live–the good news.
Paul A. Richardson is professor and assistant dean for graduate studies in the School of Music at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, and a member of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.