After four hundred years of silence the heavens and earth break forth in an epic display of ’new song” (Psalm 96, Isaiah 42). And when the scriptures sing we better pay attention!
From the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15 to the Songs of the New Creation in Revelation God fills his story with song – songs of praise, songs of lament, songs of doubt, and songs of fulfillment. Scripture is filled with hundreds of songs, prayers, and other poetic fragments of praise.
And in no other time of year do our lives feel so omnipresently filled with song as in the holiday season. And while the world hears these songs as the backdrop of consumerism celebrated the Church hears the yearly call to remember and celebrate the emmanuel – the long awaited one now at hand. The story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
And there is no place we find more inspiration to sing about the incarnation than from the Gospel of Luke. How many of our Christmas songs are rooted in the songs and narrative of his Gospel? Luke knew how powerful music was to shape and direct our affections and included four songs in his telling of the coming of Jesus unique to the other Gospel accounts. These songs draw from the deep well of the Old Testament, the dramatic unfolding moments of the present, and the unyielding promise of the future breaking in. James Watts in his excellent work “Psalm and Story: Inset Hymns in Hebrew Narrative” presents us with four perspectives on how song functions in scripture.
1. It advances the narrative plot.
2. It works to share and emphasize key themes in the narrative.
3. It enhances the narrative by providing a different perspective and
4. The song enables the ancient audience to become emotionally involved in the story thus creating liturgical drama for the reader.
As we move into Christmas day and time spent worshipping with all of our various gathered families let’s consider and and celebrate all of the rich perspectives that God gives us in the songs of Luke’s Gospel…so that we might have, as Luke hopes to give us – certainty in the things we have been taught.
The Song of Mary – Luke 1:46-56
Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, is a song of response to the news of the Angel that in the Spirit she will bear the messiah. Mary speaks from the well of the Old Testament as she weaves the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10), as well as Psalm 100 into her bold proclamation that “God has exalted the humble.”
The Song of Zechariah – Luke 1:67-79
The Song of Zechariah, often referred to as The Benedictus, is the sung prophecy of Zechariah, a priest of God. Fresh after a season of heavenly ordained muteness he sings a powerful song of fulfillment drawing on a rich tapestry of Old Testament imagery and promise. c.f. Psalm 18:2, 92:9-10, 132:17; Isaiah 60:2-3; Malachi. 4:2;
The Song of the Heavenly Host - Luke 2:14
The Angels song, immortalized in Gloria in Excelsis Deo is a visceral image of the cosmic scope of Christ’s birth. The full regalia of the Heavenly Host burst upon the scene of some scruffy shepherds. There is no better picture of the upside-down kingdom than this pastoral symphony. C.f. Isaiah 9:7, Micah 5:2
Below we have provided links to some recent songs inspired by the Lukan canticles. These songs can be found on the new Cardiphonia compilation and the Gospel Coalition album Songs for the Book of Luke released earlier this year.
The Song of Mary
The Song of Zechariah
The Song of the Heavenly Host
Song of Simeon
For further reading:
Doriani, Daniel, Phillip Ryken, and Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels, P&R Publishing, 2008.
Watts, James W. Psalm and Story: Inset Hymns in Hebrew Narrative. JSOTSup 139. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.