The words were published in 1736. They were written in Latin by Charles Coffin (1676-1749). He was Rector of the University of Paris from 1718. The 1736 publication Paris Breviary and Hymni Sacri Auctore Carolo Coffin was a collection of 100 of his hymns and poems.
The first three verses were translated by John Chandler (1807-76), who also translated Christ is our corner-stone. The translator of the other verses is unknown.
The melody Winchester New was adapted from a tune in Musikalisches Hand-Buch (published in Hamburg in 1690) by Revd William Henry Havergal (1793-1870), the father of Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) who wrote Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Father and daughter are buried side by side at St Peter’s church Astley, Worcestershire.
On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh: come then and hearken, for he brings glad tidings from the King of kings.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin, make straight the way for God within, and let us all our hearts prepare for Christ to come and enter there.
For Thou art our salvation, Lord, our Refuge and our great Reward. without Thy grace our life must fade, and wither like a flower decayed.
Stretch forth Thy hand, to health restore, and make us rise, to fall no more: once more upon Thy people shine, and fill the world with love divine.
To Him who left the throne of heaven to save mankind, all praise be given: like praise be to the Father done, and Holy Spirit Three in One.
The tune appeared in The Whole Booke of Psalmes: With The Humnes Evangelicall, and Songs Spiritual published in 1621 by Thomas Ravenscroft (c1588-1635). Of the 150 Psalms, 78 have tunes by Ravenscroft (although some tunes are duplicated). Little is known of his early life; it is thought that he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral. Apart from a number of hymn tunes, much of his music has been forgotten. He also wrote the words to a number of songs, although he is not often credited as the author of his most enduring creation – Three Blind Mice.
The tune was set in his psalter to a metrical version of Psalm 16 (and also Psalm 64). As is often the case, Ravenscroft put the melody line in the tenor part.
Each line of the tune begins and ends with a long note. This original rhythm is preserved* in the setting provided here (although some modern hymnals, including ours, have “modernised” the rhythm). Here the first two verses have the melody in the top line, the third verse is in the Ravenscroft format, and the last verse has a modern descant. (*although the first note of the last line of verse 3 is split to accommodate the first two syllables of “to enrich”, which appeared as “t’enrich” in the original version of the words.)
Hark, the glad sound! The Saviour comes, the Saviour promised long! Let every heart prepare a throne, and every voice a song.
He comes the prisoners to release, in Satan’s bondage held; the gates of brass before Him burst, the iron fetters yield.
He comes the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure, and with the treasures of His grace, to enrich the humbled poor.
Our glad Hosannas, Prince of Peace, Thy welcome shall proclaim; and heaven’s eternal arches ring, with Thy beloved Name.
It was traditional to preach on each of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) on the four Sundays in Advent. I get the impression in the words of this hymn that the author would like to get all this over with as quickly as possible.
There’ll be a more cheerful hymn tomorrow!
Revd Lawrence Tuttiett (1825-1897) was ordained deacon in 1848 and priested the following year. his first curacy was at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, and after a a few parish posts in England he was appointed as Rector of St Andrews, Scotland in 1870. He wrote a number of hymns, but most have fallen out of fashion. This is one of the few that appear in modern hymnals.
The original composer of the tune Vater Unser (the opening words of The Lord’s Prayer in German) is unknown. It appeared in Valentin Schumann’s Geistliche Lieder in 1539 and was used by Martin Luther for his hymn based on The Lord’s Prayer. (The first of its nine verses is given below along with an English translation.) The harmonisation of the melody is by Johann Sebastian Bach. If I’m perfectly honest, I have included this hymn more for the tune than the words. There aren’t all that many English hymns that would go with this tune, the metre is more suited to the German language. Eternal father, strong to save and O come, O come Emmanuel would fit, although these have perfectly good familiar tunes.
O quickly come, dread Judge of all; for, aweful though thine advent be, all shadows from the truth will fall, and falsehood die, in sight of thee: O quickly come, for doubt and fear like clouds dissolve when thou art near.
O quickly come, great King of all; reign all around us and within; let sin no more our souls enthral, let pain and sorrow die with sin: O quickly come, for thou alone canst make thy scattered people one.
O quickly come, true Life of all, for death is mighty all around; on every home his shadows fall, on every heart his mark is found: O quickly come, for grief and pain can never cloud thy glorious reign.
O quickly come, sure Light of all, for gloomy night broods o’er our way; and weakly souls begin to fall with weary watching for the day: O quickly come, for round thy throne no eye is blind, no night is known.
Here is the start of Luther’s hymn expounding the Lord’s Prayer:
Vater unser im Himmelreich, Der du uns alle heißest gleich Brüder sein und dich rufen an Und willst das Beten von uns han, Gibt, daß nicht bet allein der Mund, Hilf, daß es geh von Herzensgrund.
Our Father in the heaven Who art, Who tellest all of us in heart Brothers to be, and on Thee call, And wilt have prayer from us all, Grant that the mouth not only pray, From deepest heart oh help its way.
This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Roman Catholic Advent liturgy. On each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. Five of the seven verses were translated by Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866).
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
The tune now known as Veni Emmanuel was not associated with the hymn in ancient time (although as the Latin metre is the same as that of the English translation, it would fit). It has been found in a 15th century French manuscript in a set of processional chants for burials and may have an earlier source in a Missal. The tune was first published with an earlier version of Neale’s translation in 1851. A selection of arrangements is provided here.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save and give them victory o’er the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here; and drive away the shades of night, and pierce the clouds and bring us light! Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might, who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height in ancient times didst give the law in cloud, and majesty, and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
The original hymn Lo! He cometh, countless Trumpets was written by John Cennick (1718-1755). Although raised in an Anglican family, he became associated at various times with Quakers, Wesleyans, Calvanistic Methodists, Baptists and Moravians.
His hymn was published in 1752.
The hymn was substantially re-written by Revd Charles Wesley (1707-1788) to provide the version we know today (although there are a number of varying texts). It was first published in 1758.
The basic structure survives, along with a few phrases. (Cennick’s version is shown below).
The melody of the tune Helmsley has been attributed to Thomas Arne (1710-1778) and also to Thomas Olivers (1725-1799). It was the latter who published the tune in 1765, reputedly after hearing it whistled in the street.
Lo! he comes, with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain; thousand thousand saints, attending, swell the triumph of his train: Hallelujah! [x3] God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at naught and sold him, pierced and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, [x3] shall the true Messiah see.
All the tokens of His passion still His dazzling body bears: cause of endless exultation to His ransomed worshippers; with what rapture [x3] gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, amen! let all adore thee, high on thine eternal throne; Saviour, take the power and glory; claim the kingdom for Thine own. O come quickly! [x3] Hallelujah! Come, Lord, come.
Here is the text by John Cennick (as published in 1821, several decades after his death):
Lo! He cometh! countless trumpets blow, to raise the sleeping dead; midst ten thousand saints and angels see their great exalted Head. Hallelujah, welcome, welcome, Son of God.
Now his merit, by the harpers, thro’ th’ eternal deep resounds; now resplendent shine his nail-prints, every eye shall see his wounds: they who pierc’d him shall at his appearance wail.
Full of joyful expectation, Saints behold the Judge appear: truth and justice go before him, now the joyful sentence hear. Hallelujah, welcome, welcome Judge divine.
“Come, ye blessed of my Father, enter into life and joy; banish all your fears and sorrows, endless praise be your employ. Hallelujah, welcome, welcome, to the skies.
Now at once they rise to glory, Jesus brings them to the King; there, with all the hosts of heaven, they eternal anthems sing. Hallelujah, boundless glory to the Lamb.
This 7th century Latin hymn Conditor alme siderum used to be ascribed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Bishop of Milan, but modern scholarship dismisses this as a legend.
The hymn was traditionally sung at Vespers (Evening Prayer).
Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of bee keepers, candle makers, bishops, geese and police officers. Although he may not have written this hymn he did write many others, perhaps the best known being O strength and stay, upholding all creation.
It is one of the many hymns translated by Revd John Mason Neale. You can read more about him on the post O what their joy and their glory must be. The words provided here are a more familiar version of Neale’s original text (see below).
The tune Conditor Alme is a traditional plainsong melody and is provided here with various harmonies. Please note that verse three has a conventional hymn tune format, but the melody line is a little different in a couple of places.
Plainsong developed during the earliest centuries of Christianity, influenced possibly by the music of the Jewish synagogue and certainly by the Greek modal system. It has its own system of notation, employing a staff of four lines instead of five. If two notes are written one above the other, the lower note is sung first. You can see this in the way the Amen is written:
Creator of the starry height, Thy people’s everlasting light, Jesu, redeemer of us all, hear Thou Thy servants when they call.
Thou, sorrowing at the helpless cry of all creation doomed to die, didst come to save our fallen race by healing gifts of heavenly grace.
When earth was near its evening hour, Thou didst, in love’s redeeming power, like bridegroom from his chamber, come forth from a virgin-mother’s womb.
At Thy great name, exalted now, all knees in lowly homage bow; all things in heaven and earth adore, and own Thee King for evermore.
To Thee, O Holy One, we pray, our Judge in that tremendous day, ward off, while yet we dwell below, the weapons of our crafty foe.
To God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, Three in One, praise, honour, might, and glory be from age to age eternally. Amen.
Neale’s original version of the text seems rather old-fashioned now:
Creator of the stars of night, Thy people’s everlasting light, Jesu, Redeemer, save us all, And hear Thy servants when they call.
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse Should doom to death a universe, Hast found the medicine, full of grace, To save and heal a ruined race.
Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the bride, As drew the world to evening-tide; Proceeding from a virgin shrine, The spotless victim all divine.
At whose dread name, majestic now, All knees must bend, all hearts must bow; And things celestial Thee shall own, And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
O Thou whose coming is with dread To judge and doom the quick and dead, Preserve us, while we dwell below, From every insult of the foe.
To God the Father, God the Son, And God the Spirit, Three in One, Laud, honour, might, and glory be From age to age eternally.
I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.
OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said
The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…
The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.
At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.
In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.
Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.
It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.
In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.
Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.
Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.
This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.
Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.
In this Advent of expectation draw us together in unity, that our praise and worship might echo in these walls and also through our lives. In this Advent of expectation draw us together in mission, that the hope within might be the song we sing, and the melody of our lives. In this Advent of expectation draw us together in service, that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to a glimpse of eternity. John Birch
Saturday 7th December – 9.30am Woodlands Volunteer Day & Carols around the Campfire
Many hands make light work! This day will continue to focus on The Anniversary Garden, preparing it for the planting of 50 fruit trees in the new year. Following on from the success of the last volunteer day in November, our gardener James said:
“The planting up of our new fruit trees has come a step closer thanks to some much appreciated volunteer efforts on Saturday! In mercifully dry-ish weather, we tackled the old terraces near the orchard, starting a gargantuan task of restoring the yew hedge at the top of the bank and then removing great quantities of gorse and brambles that inhabited the terrace below. This has the effect of allowing foot passage along the terrace for the fist time in a while and letting much needed light flood the area meaning people can now sit on the benches below without being snagged by thorns! Once the terrace is clear, we can then start planting the fruit trees in the new year. This exciting task, however, must be first preceded with a second go at the clearing, so please do join us for another round of hearty work and even heartier company on December 7th!”
The day will begin at 9.30am and finish with us gathering around a campfire at around 4pm for some carols and mulled wine (weather permitting). Lunch and refreshments will be provided to keep energy levels up! If you would like to join us for some or all of the day, please contact the Foxhill team for catering purposes. If you would like to donate a tree to The Anniversary Garden, a limited number are still available – more information can be found here.
Monday 9th – Friday 13th December Each evening: Room at the Inn
A Series of short services offering space to reflect and reconnect with the true meaning of Christmas, and find joy in Emmanuel – God with us. 6.30pm – House open for quiet time in the Chapel or a chat in the Sitting Room 7.30pm – 8pm – Gather in the Chapel Refreshments to follow. Although booking is not essential, it is helpful for catering purposes – please call or email the Foxhill team if you would like to attend.
Saturday 14th December– 4pm Journey to Bethlehem
An all age carol service bringing the Christmas story to life as we follow Mary and Joseph through the grounds of Foxhill on a candle-lit journey to Bethlehem. Although this is a free event, booking is essential as places are limited. Please email the Foxhill team here.
Sunday 15th December Christmas Lunch & Carol Service
Join the Friends of Foxhill for a day of fellowship and celebration. 1pm Christmas lunch – £15pp 2.30pmCarol Service in the Chapel All are welcome – please book in advance with the Foxhill team here.
Some of the 300 oranges prepared for our Christingle Services this year. As in previous years, we had two separate services on the afternoon of Advent Sunday in order to safely accommodate everyone. The construction teams needed to do some quality testing on the sweets used!
So here we are at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is almost upon us. Veronica opened the service with the lighting of the fourth Advent candle. Here at St. Oswald we have a candle holder rather than the usual Advent wreath, which allows the congregation to see all the candles at once. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child and Purple (or violet) has traditionally been the primary colour of Advent, symbolizing repentance, prayer and fasting. Purple is also the colour of royalty and the sovereignty of Christ, so demonstrating our anticipation in Advent of the coming King.
The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the Prophecy Candle or Candle of Hope, is purple. The second Candle lit, which is also purple is called the Candle of Preparation. Last week Veronica lit the Pink Candle for the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, being over half way through Advent. Pink or rose represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration. Today the fourth Advent Candle is purple. It is called the Angel Candle or the Candle of Love because our gospel today reminds us of the Angel visiting Mary and of her great love for her unborn child. Lastly, the Christ Candle is white representing purity and light and this is lit on Christmas morning.
Christ is the sinless, spotless, pure Saviour. He is the light come into a dark and dying world. Also, those who receive Jesus Christ as Saviour are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow. While there may be several traditions regarding the meaning or theme of each candle, they all enable us to reflect during Advent. By focusing on the colours of Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is a great way for Christian families to spiritually prepare by keeping Christ at the centre of Christmas, and for parents to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas.When I was a young schoolboy, the family went to Plymouth Brethren services and there were no candles and certainly no Advent Wreath. To say that, as a child, I found their Communion services to be ‘dour’ would certainly be correct. They did not have candles, or crucifixes or any of those ‘Papacy trappings,’ so my first Christmas with the Church of England was a bit of an eye opener!
Our Gospel reading from Luke is all about Mary meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant, and Mary being overjoyed and singing a song which we call the Magnificat. My Plymouth Brethren Sunday school teacher taught me that this was a very boastful song and that we should never express ourselves in such a way. I would hope that when she got married and had a child of her own, that she too would also share some of the joy that Mary felt, and would then correctly understand this song of Mary.
Just put yourself in that house all those years ago. We don’t know precisely where Zechariah lived but it is probably fairly close to Jerusalem. In an earlier chapter, Luke tells us that Zechariah was taking his turn in the temple, rather like Veronica, who as a canon has duties in Chester Cathedral. It is probable that Mary lived some eighty miles from Elizabeth which was quite a journey in those days, so she may not have been aware that Elizabeth was also expecting a baby. You can imagine the meeting, the two of them talking excitedly to each other about the wonders that God had achieved. They were both very, very, happy, and it is probable that they danced around together.
In his commentary ‘Luke for Everyone’, Bishop Tom Wright suggests that Mary probably made up a song with snatches of poems and songs she already knew or perhaps by adding her own new words to a great old hymn or psalm. And as she lived in a culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground. Mary’s song should be read like that. It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It goes with a swing and a clap and a stamp. It’s all about God, and it’s all about revolution.
And it’s all because of Jesus – Jesus who’s only just been conceived, not yet born, but who has made Elizabeth’s baby leap for joy in her womb and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope and triumph. In many cultures today, it’s the women who really know how to celebrate, to sing and dance, with their bodies and voices saying things far deeper than words. That’s how Mary’s song comes across here.
Yes, Mary will have to learn many other things as well. A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he’s twelve. She will think he’s gone mad when he’s thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her (and that, too, is part of the same Jewish tradition she draws on in this song). All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won’t be taken away.
Why did Mary launch into a song like this? What has the news of her son got to do with God’s strong power overthrowing the power structures of the world, demolishing the mighty and exalting the humble? Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what He had told Israel’s earliest ancestors: that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessing them if they were poor, hungry, enslaved and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elizabeth knew all too well, living as they lived in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up by the strength of Rome.
Mary and Elizabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, revolution, of victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last. All of that is poured into this song, like a rich, foaming drink that comes bubbling over the edge of the jug and spills out all round. Almost every word is a biblical quotation such as Mary would have known from childhood. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by her son’s preaching, as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth, and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.
But once again Luke hasn’t just shown us a big picture. Mary’s visit to Elisabeth is a wonderful human story – of the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had gone, and the younger one, pregnant far sooner than she had expected. That might have been a moment of tension: Mary might have felt proud, Elizabeth perhaps resentful. Nothing of that happens. Instead, the intimate details: John, three months before his birth, leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, and the Holy Spirit carrying Elizabeth into shouted praise and Mary into song.
Underneath it all is a celebration of God. God has taken the initiative – God the Lord, the saviour, the Powerful One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Faithful One. God is the ultimate reason to celebrate.
The stories of the special pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth is about much more than their just their mutual joy. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purpose and also reminds us of another important thing. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. So while you enjoy, what I hope will be a joyful and peaceful Christmas, remember that God has a plan for everyone, and be ready to serve him, and follow Him whichever way and whenever he leads.
Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, just and true, to you be praise and glory for ever. Of old you spoke by the mouth of your prophets, but in our days you speak through your Son, whom you have appointed the heir of all things. Grant us, your people, to walk in his light, that we may be found ready and watching when he comes again in glory and judgement; for you are our light and our salvation. Blessed be God for ever. AMEN