It was night all across the Roman world.
Thousands of icy stars glittered over the largest empire the world had ever seen. From the border of wild Scotland to the vast desolation in the Arabian deserts, Roman sentries paced back and forth as the rest of the world slept. A long day’s work was over, and millions of working men and women were dreaming fitfully of the future and the past. Besides the sentries, only a few people were awake, a strange collection of persons united only by the fact that they were unable to sleep on this particular night.
In Rome, Caesar Augustus stirred on his silken sheets. The warm musty smell of the imperial gardens drifted in through the open windows. Strange shadows were playing on the opposite wall as the torchlight flickered in the night breeze. The most powerful man in the known world lifted his head and stared at the simple writing desk that sat in the corner of his palace bedroom.
Try as he might, he simply could not sleep tonight. Of all the noisy clamor of the court and the Senate chamber from the day, his mind had seized on one fact and refused to let it go—the treasury was nearly empty. Top-secret memos from the imperial treasurer had assured him that unless some new tax was instituted and on a grand scale, the empire would run out of money to keep the troops in the field on three continents.
The emperor’s shrewd mind quickly reviewed the possibilities. Yes, there was the option of levying a large surtax on the regions of Gaul for their recent rebellion against his rule, but the military governor there had advised against that plan. New taxes on foodstuffs and commerce had been proposed by one of the prominent senators during the day’s speechmaking, but the consensus of the politicians was that it would probably result in riots by the lower classes in Roman colonies around the Mediterranean. There was, however, one more possibility—a scheme so grand, so broad, that he couldn’t even think of it without smiling at its sheer cleverness. If, by imperial decree, every resident of the empire was required to return to the town of his ancestors to be enrolled and taxed, there could be little opposition to the plan, for all chance of organized resistance would melt away as each one traveled to distant locations. The plan would seem fair, for it would at least ostensibly impose the same percentage of tax on all men, rich and poor, and it would provide the local government with a convenient list of taxpayers to review every year.
The emperor rubbed his palms together in anticipation of the streams of gold that would soon flow into the imperial treasury. With the agility of a wakeful cat, he stepped lightly across the room to his desk. He grasped the quill pen, and began to write: “I, Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome, do hereby decree that all the world shall be taxed . . .”
Hundreds of miles away in the Judean desert, a crafty king also sat up in the night and plotted the destiny of his people. Herod called for a flagon of wine as he mulled over the political realities of his kingdom. Because he had been installed by the Romans, he had to be careful not to offend them by appealing too strongly to Jewish patriotism. But emerging from a family that had at least officially converted to Judaism, he understood the hatred of all things Roman that burned in so many Jewish hearts. For the moment, however, the problem was how to use the ongoing struggles between the Sadducees and Pharisees to his best political advantage.
By instinct, Herod would have sided with the Sadducees, the liberal elites of the priestly class, who didn’t always bother themselves with the niceties of the law and had a fine appreciation for the best things in Greek culture. But he couldn’t ignore the rising conservative tide in the country that had catapulted the Pharisee party to national prominence. It wouldn’t help to be condemned in both synagogues and marketplaces for being lax on the law of Moses. What to do? What to do?
The king lay awake on his royal bed, listening to the desert wind play along the rocky ridges of his impregnable Masada fortress.
She, too, was awake tonight, and through her mind were passing thoughts at least as large as those that troubled the emperor in Rome and the king in the desert. Ringing in her ears was the voice of a brilliant angel who had invaded her humble house with a message of stunning importance: “You, Mary, will have a son who will be the Savior of the world.” “You, Mary, a virgin, will conceive in your womb, and bear a child by the Holy Ghost.” And even though she had said “Yes” to the heavenly messenger, even though she had submitted to the will of God in choosing her for this awesome responsibility, the anxious thoughts simply wouldn’t disappear.
Tonight as she lay on a strange bed in the house of a relative, she thought of the three long days of walking that had brought her to this spot. Tomorrow, God willing, she would reach the city of Hebron, where cousin Elizabeth lived. Perhaps Elizabeth, so wise and kind, could explain to her why all of this was happening. Perhaps Elizabeth, who almost seemed a mother to her, would comfort her and give her strength to face the trials that certainly lay ahead.
But for tonight, there were only strange and awesome thoughts running through her busy mind as she stared at the ceiling in the darkness. Tonight there were only questions in the mind of the tired young woman from Nazareth so many miles from home. Perhaps with the new day would come new answers.
Three persons lay awake in the night and thought of the future. In the hands of each of them, in a special way, lay the destiny of the whole world. For Caesar’s taxation scheme on which he spent half the night would months later bring a tired couple named Joseph and Mary to a dusty town called Bethlehem, and would set in motion a prophecy given 4,000 years before.
And Herod’s wrath at the baby boy would cement the loose alliance between the Pharisees and Sadducees and leaders of the people, and one day bring Jesus to a cross outside Jerusalem.
But especially with Mary lay all the hopes and dreams of thousands of hurting and oppressed men and women all over this tired world, for in her womb the mysterious child had already begun to grow who would break the chains of slavery and fear, and announce the age of jubilee and the acceptable year of the Lord.
If Caesar Augustus and crafty Herod could have known that in the womb of a quiet young Galilean woman a child was forming who would bring their kingdoms crashing down, they would have roused every army in the land to destroy both mother and unborn child. But the knowledge was hidden from them; their best scouts and most faithful spies could tell them nothing of it.
While they lay awake and counted piles of gold and groups of political allies, the clock was ticking toward the day when justice would be born into the world; the hands were moving ever closer to the day of liberation. Angel choirs were already beginning to rehearse the songs that would fill the fields surrounding Bethlehem. Persian astronomers were already remarking on the unusual star that had suddenly appeared in the night sky.
In the Temple at Jerusalem, an old man named Simeon and an elderly woman named Anna searched the prophecies of the Old Testament and knew that the day of freedom must be near at hand. With tears in their aging eyes they begged the God of heaven that they would be allowed to see the day when freedom would come in the person of the Messiah.
All humanity was groaning in the misery of pain and despair. Cruel rulers were snatching away the liberties of the people one by one, and everywhere the rich were getting richer. Landlords demanded and got huge increases in rent because there was no place else to go. Soldiers brutalized the common folk in the countryside to get the things their hearts desired. Priests and rulers plotted and schemed to milk the faithful of even more money as they came to sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. Tax collectors exploited their role among the conquered peoples, blackmailing them into ever higher “contributions.”
From the lips of suffering humanity came a cry of wretchedness and woe the like of which the world had almost never heard. And from His throne in heaven, God looked down on this bruised and bleeding world, and knew that the time was right to send His Son. The time had come to announce the release of all the captives; the time had come to proclaim liberty throughout the land.
And so to a remarkable young woman named Mary He gave not only the unspeakably precious gift of His Son, but also the gift of His Holy Spirit. Before she had ever felt the movements of that divine child in her body, Mary felt the movement of the divine spirit in her mind; and in her ecstasy of praise and adoration she poured out the song we read today:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
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 powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever”
(Luke 1:46-55, NRSV).1
Mary’s beautiful song is one of the most marvelous hymns in the Word of God. Perhaps she may not even have understood the full meaning of every word she spoke. But Mary sang a song at least as great as anything her ancestor David ever composed in the hills of Judea.
Mary’s song, however, is more than just an echo of the Psalms; it’s more than just a fine example of the best of Hebrew poetry. Mary’s song marks the transition between the praise of the Old Testament and the praise of the New Testament. It sums up the goodness and greatness of God in dealing with His people through all the centuries of the past, but it also looks forward in time to the day when the kingdom of God will reign in power on this earth.
For Mary at least dimly knew that the Child she was carrying would bring into this world the justice and the freedom for which all the world was crying out. Under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, Mary could perhaps see many years into the future, and glimpse the day of liberation for all who have ever been oppressed.
Perhaps she glimpsed her son lifting the heavy burdens of the weak; perhaps she saw Him healing the bodies of those stricken with leprosy and paralysis.
Perhaps she heard the words of grace falling from His lips like manna to people in the wilderness.
Above it all, Mary knew that with the birth of her Son, God’s justice would come crashing into a world filled with tyranny and cruelty. Mary knew that with Jesus, all the corrupt institutions of this world would one day be swept away. Mary knew, as the old Christmas carol from the nineteenth century later said so well, that a day was coming when the Lord would “cast a-down the proud.”2 And something in the heart of this poverty-stricken young woman rejoiced to know that there was a day coming when justice would prevail. Like her son, Mary could see the fruit of the travail of her soul, and she was satisfied.
The hope of Mary is the hope of millions of hurting men and women all over this world today. In the freezing wastelands of unknown prison camps, North Korean Christians sing the song of Mary, for they know a day is coming when all oppression will cease.
In the impoverished slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Christians sing the song of Mary, for they believe in the day when God will fill the hungry with good things.
In the bombed-out remnants of a once-prospering town, Syrian Christians sing the song of Mary, for they look to that day when God will put down the mighty from their thrones and His people will live in peace.
We know these things are possibilities because we have seen them lived out in Jesus when He walked this earth. Our eyes saw Him as He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, and as He welcomed all the little people of the land to come in and find God’s grace. Our ears heard Him as He prayed that His father would multiply five loaves and two fish to feed more than 5,000 hungry people. Our hands clung to Him as we rode out an angry storm on the lake, and with a single word He brought peace again.
In Jesus there is freedom; in Jesus there is food; in Jesus there is peace. And with all the energy that hope can muster in our hearts, we pray for the day when all the world will have enough of freedom, and food, and peace.
The song of Mary should unsettle us. It should shake up all our comfortable notions of complacent Christianity. The song of Mary should remind us that the Child she brought into this world has always been the Lord of change. In the name of Jesus, unjust rulers have been chased from their thrones; masses of people have been liberated from their prisons; millions of working men and women have been freed from the tyranny of unscrupulous employers because of the name of Jesus. Uncounted millions of children have been fed and clothed and loved in His name, when the world would have left them to die in the ditch.
The song of Mary reminds us that Jesus always stands for justice, even where justice costs us something. The Child who was carried in Mary’s womb as a human son keeps careful record of all the abuse and pain inflicted on the children of the world. The Man who called Mary mother never forgets the economic injustices imposed on the elderly in our society. He sees the tears in the nursing homes; He sees the old man who is forced to live on dog food because his Social Security check is far too small. He sees the helplessness of the migrant laborer.
And on that day when the lightning of God will streak from east to west, there will be no place to hide for those who have hurt even one of His little ones. Jesus never forgets. He is the Lord of justice; He will see to it that justice is done.
Mary rejoiced in the knowledge that the son she was bringing into the world would be God’s answer to the age-old question of human suffering and misery. In Jesus all the wrongs of the world would be righted, even if not in her lifetime.
But I’m afraid that far too few of us have ever entered as passionately into the cause of justice as Mary did. We have decided that little can be done to make things right in this bleeding world, so we hardly lift a finger when children starve, and homeless persons live out their lives in wretchedness; we hardly bat an eye when hundreds die in sectarian strife in Syria and Nigeria and India.
But the Lord whom Mary brought into this world was no passive Lord; not once in all the Gospels do we find Jesus endorsing the status quo just to buy some peace for Himself or His followers. Can we as His modern disciples claim that we haven’t been called to bring justice to at least our corner of the world?
These are unsettling questions to raise as we approach another Christmas. They don’t fit neatly into the plastic manger scenes we have erected on the front lawn. They don’t ring merrily through the glistening bulbs and tinsel that decorate our Christmas trees.
These questions demand of us a reevaluation of our Christianity. They demand of us a rethinking of what it means to celebrate a Christmas at a time when our minds are occupied with stockings and candy and gifts, while the shortsighted men and women of culture flock to the malls and bemoan the shortage of the latest trendy toy. Shall we who call ourselves Christians pretend that Christmas is nothing more than a time to give gifts to those who already have too much?
Let’s hear the song of Mary today; let’s recognize that the best way to celebrate the birth of the Lord of righteousness is to bring a little righteousness into our corner of the world. The best way to celebrate Christmas is to touch some hurting life with God’s healing, to put food in some hungry mouth, to share His love with the lonely and the outcasts of our communities.
In the words of the prophet Amos, words that Mary knew so well and loved so much:
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NRSV). This is the real song of Christmas. It’s a carol of commitment; it’s a song of dedication; it’s an anthem of liberation.
Go out now, and in His name, set somebody free this Christmas.
1 Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
2 William Morris, “Nowell, Sing We Clear.”
Bill Knott is the editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. This article first appeared in December 2016. He will transition to associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty in January 2023.