The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke are a bit like a Broadway musical: every few verses, someone seems to break into song. Mary’s song comes first, followed by songs and verse from Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father), the angels proclaiming Jesus’s birth, and finally Simeon, who is at the temple when Jesus is presented.
As I prepared for a Sunday school class on Mary’s song last Sunday, I was reminded that all the singing isn’t the least bit accidental. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God’s people regularly respond with song at moments of great deliverance. Moses sang the song of the sea after Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15); Hannah, who had long been barren, sang a song of exultation when she presented her son Samuel to the Lord; and David sang a song of praise after he was delivered from his enemies (2 Samuel 22).
When Mary, having been told by the angel that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High,” greets her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaims “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1: 42). These words echo yet another Biblical song. “Most blessed of women be Jael,” the prophetess Deborah sings in Judges 5: 24, praising the woman who drove a tent peg through the head of the commander of an army that was oppressing Israel. Mary helped to crush evil in a very different way than Jael. As Jesus’s mother, she contributed to the fulfillment of the prophesy in Genesis 3 that the offspring of Eve would “bruise [Satan’s] head.”
This context explains why Mary’s own song is full of verses that might otherwise seem incongruous. Mary says that God “has shown great strength with his arm” and “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1: 51). These words sound more like a battle cry than like the rejoicing of a newly expectant mother. But they come straight from the tradition of Biblical songs of deliverance. Mary borrows from Exodus 15 (e.g., “Your right hand, O Lord … shatters the enemy” in Exodus 15:6) while subtly adjusting the language from human to spiritual warfare. As a devout Jew living in a largely oral culture, Mary knew the earlier songs well, so it was only natural, in this most supernatural of moments, that she would burst forth in verses of praise.
It seems fitting that our worship services tonight will be filled with hymns and songs, since we will be celebrating the greatest deliverance of all, the deliverance that began when a little child was born.