This is a talk I gave last Christmas and I thought I'd pass it on.
In Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord gave Emma Smith an important assignment:
And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church
For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.
At this season of sacred music and beautiful carols, what a wonderful gift we have from these verses—to know that we can delight the soul of the Lord with the songs of our hearts and that the result of that singing will be blessings on our heads.
Today, I’d like to talk about Christmas songs. One is by a young woman who spoke according to ancient traditions. The other is by an older man who lived in our dispensation.
The song of the young woman begins with praise, yet many distressing trials were to follow in her life. The song of the older man gives praise and testimony after a very long series of painful afflictions and deep heartache.
The young girl’s words have their roots in teachings handed down faithfully from generation to generation. It was only in 1994 with the translation of the first fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we learned the cultural context of Mary’s song found in Luke 1:46-55. Like the Magnificat—the name given to Mary’s song of praise—the song from the scrolls at Qumran also began with the words, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” Scholars believe that Mary’s reflections ended up as a hymn in the early church.
Mary’s poem began in a manner traditional to her faith—she wanted to honor her Heavenly Father in the eyes of others. She wanted to magnify and bring glory and credit to God with her soul, her heart, and her life. It would be a very safe guess that from his earliest childhood, Jesus would have often heard his mother say, ‘Great is the Lord!” She probably sang it as a lullaby.
In the Gospel of Luke, this desire to honor God informed Mary’s thinking even before the baby was born. Her song included many insights gleaned from a long history with the God of Israel.
Today there are al least 1,200 versions of the Magnificat written in several languages—everything from an energetic clapping and foot stomping gospel music version performed by a Japanese group to Bach with his traditional style using a full orchestra and classical choir.
On YouTube, you can find over 22,600 performances of the Magnificat. There’s something for every possible musical preference. John Rutter’s arrangement is my favorite.
Mary’s words to her cousin Elizabeth honor that God who remembers the poor, the lowly and a young innocent teenage girl from an insignificant village, and it reminds us that the proud are finally humbled and made low.
The verses in Luke are the only evidences we have of Mary’s actual thinking and thoughts. We know about some of the things she said and did, but this is the only text that reveals to us something about her innermost ponderings. Mary’s song reflects a perspective that Biblical scholars call a “reversal of fortune” pattern. As an example of this, we could say that at times, the wicked prosper, but in the end, Satan does not support those who follow him. And while the righteous may suffer for a time, through faith, the Lord will eventually restore them to great blessings.
We can listen to Mary’s words and notice this pattern of reverses. But first her praise:
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hat rejoiced in God, my Savior
V. 48 Low estate of handmaiden (no status in society)
All generations shall call me blessed (very high station)
v. 51 He hath scattered the proud (high then reversed)
v. 52 He hath put down (humbled) the mighty and exalted them of low degree.
v. 53 He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away. (Because they are rich, they think his gifts are not needed.)
v. 54 He hath holpen (helped) his servant Israel (very unexpected for a servant to be helped by his master. But God’s ways are different from man’s ways.)
The Lord esteems the humble and lowly and remembers them—taking action to bless them. People admired in human society are not necessarily great in the eyes of God. Of course, God loves and values all people, but the characteristics he prizes are very different from those held up as desirable in our culture today. His thoughts are definitely not our thoughts.
We can hear possible echoes of Mary’s words in some of Christ’s teachings. The Beatitudes taught by Jesus reflect the same pattern spoken of in Mary’s hymn.
Blessed are the _______ and Jesus chose to fill in the blank with illustrations of people who did NOT feel blessed or happy. Blessed, he said, are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted. Blessed are the spiritually hungry and those who thirst after righteousness. All who seek him will be helped and filled with good things. Our sadness will not last forever.
Joseph Smith bore a similar testimony to his cousin, George A. Smith, who was experiencing a time of great difficulty. George said,
“He told me I should never get discouraged, whatever difficulties might surround me. If I was sunk in the lowest pit in Nova Scotia and all the Rocky Mountains piled on top of me, I ought not to be discouraged, but hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage and I should come out on the top of the heap at last.”
Christ had learned from his mother’s example and by his own experience that there was help and consolation for all of the sorrows found in this world, and that the source of our consolation is a knowledge of our Father in Heaven and his ways (which are not man’s ways!) Jesus was willing to descend below all things in order to ascend to the Father.