December 1, 2020

​Ancient and Sublime

Christians have celebrated Christ’s birth in song for centuries.

Daniel Oscar Plenc

Many of the songs that we sing to commemorate the birth of Christ (and we could not imagine the season without doing so) are inspired by the so-called Nativity songs of Luke 1 and 2. These texts, in highly poetic language, contain profound spiritual and theological concepts. The four hymns mentioned are traditionally identified by the first words of the Latin translation of Scripture used by Christians in the first millennium.  These hymns pre-date any Christian denomination, and belong to all believers through the centuries:  Magnificat, or song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55); Benedictus, or song of Zacharias (verses 68-79); Gloria in excelsis Deo, or song of the angels (Luke 2:13, 14); and Nunc dimittis, or song of Simeon (verses 28-32). The style of the four songs recorded in the first two chapters of Luke reminds us of the psalms and has sometimes been called “major canticles.”

Magnificat

Mary’s song was sung before the birth of Jesus. Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and friend, listened carefully to the words of Mary’s song.

“And Mary said:

‘My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down 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.

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors’ ”

(Luke 1:46-55).

What are some of the reasons for praise that appear in this song? Mary expresses concrete qualities and activities of God: (1) He is the Savior; (2) He uses humble instruments; (3) He is powerful and holy and does great things; (4) He is merciful and keeps His promises. They all point to the recognition of the Lord, who had called her to the unprecedented service of being the mother of the Messiah. The words of Mary, a humble and consecrated young woman, were a vehicle of praise. But beyond words, her own life of surrender, submission, and sacrifice showed a deep understanding of what authentic worship means. We have a video of an Adventist composition based on the song of Mary:  www.adventistreview.org/the-song-of-mary.

Benedictus

Zacharias’ song is reported following the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. It’s possible that the neighbors and relatives of the pious priest heard this meaningful hymn, spoken with heartfelt devotion (Luke 1:67).

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),

salvation from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us—

to show mercy to our ancestors

and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath he swore to our father Abraham:

to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,

and to enable us to serve him without fear

in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness

and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the path of peace”

(Luke 1:68-79).

Some of the reasons for praising God, as reflected in the song of Zacharias, include the following: (1) God has drawn near to His people to redeem them; (2) He has sent a mighty Savior; (3) He visited His children with mercy. Zacharias, a priest serving in the temple, lists concrete evidences of God’s saving power, His providence, and God’s affection for His children in need.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

That’s the title of the song of the angels on the occasion of the birth of Jesus. This short and magnificent angelic song was heard by the astonished shepherds working in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel,

praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’ ” (Luke 2:13, 14).

The foundation of this song is found in the exalted Lord of glory, who brought good will and peace to humanity. It’s understood, at the same time, that the incarnation of Jesus reunites God with humanity, shortens the distance between heaven and earth, and contributes to the glory of God and the peace of humankind.

Nunc Dimittis

The song of Simeon was pronounced when Baby Jesus was presented in the temple on the occasion of His circumcision. Simeon, an old man described by Luke as “righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25), took Jesus in his arms and blessed God, as Joseph and Mary listened in amazement, without understanding the full significance of his words.

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel”

(Luke 2:29-32).

What new reasons for praise can be found in Simeon’s song? Let me suggest two: (1) The hymn assures that with the arrival of Jesus salvation became visible; (2) His coming also ensures that salvation is offered to all humanity.

Revisiting these ancient New Testament songs recorded in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel,  has highlighted their depth and enduring importance. They continue to remind us of some of the many reasons we, too, have to praise and worship God.

What further elements can we discern in these songs that help us better understand what it means to praise and worship the Lord? Let me suggest four. First, there is a note of joy (Luke 1:47) in all of them, and they have their center in the wonderful gift of the Lord given in the person of Jesus. Second, each song references God’s salvation (verses 47, 68, 69, 71, 77; Luke 2:11, 30). Third, all of them highlight divine qualities, such as the power of God (Luke 1:49, 69) and His mercy (verses 50, 54, 72, 78). Finally, they present the idea that Christ came to bring peace to humanity (verse 79; Luke 2:14, 29).

While it may not always be easy to include all of these elements in each and every act of worship, we need to find ways to consciously include them. Joy, the assurance of salvation, and peace are invaluable characteristics of all positive, vital, engaging, and inspiring worship. These elements are not to be forgotten and should not be underestimated by worship leaders, musicians, and preachers, or even parents as they think about family worship. The songs linked with the incarnation of Christ in Luke’s Gospel offer us a vivid illustration of their importance.

A Final Comment on Praise

As seen in Luke’s Nativity songs, praise is an ever-present response in biblical moments of personal or congregational worship. On such occasion
s, praise comes in response to some revelation or manifestation of God, as a positive and joyous reaction. By definition, praise is an audible response through the use of words, spoken or sung. There are abundant examples of these words of praise to the Lord in the Bible. In the Psalms, for example, we are told to praise God in songs, with the mouth, with the deepest emotions, with our whole life, be it alone or as part of a larger community. Praise is, by all accounts, a pleasant and vibrant practice in which everyone, angels and human beings, should participate.

That festive and joyful sense of appreciation and gratitude was experienced for a few moments during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:37, 38). In the same way, the New Testament associates praise with the offering of spiritual sacrifices (Heb. 13:15). As shown in Scripture, praise is a response to who God is and what He has done—and is doing—for His children. We praise God because He is worthy of it. In the Psalms God is praised for His goodness, mercy, faithfulness, justice, greatness, and sovereignty. Therefore, when planning personal, family, or congregational moments of worship, we do well to take these indispensable components into account.

Luke’s Nativity songs offer a magnificent illustration of the response of praise to the great news of the arrival of Jesus, the divine Savior, to a world in dire need of redemption.


Daniel Oscar Plenc is a professor of systematic and historical theology at Universidad Adventista del Plata and also director of the White Research Center. He lives with his wife, Lissie, in Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos, Argentina; they have three adult children.

Daniel Oscar Plenc
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