The Very First Christmas Song Ever - The Magnificat

SERMON TOPIC: The Very First Christmas Song Ever - The Magnificat

Speaker: Gavin Paynter

Language: ENGLISH

Date: 25 December 2016


Sermon synopsis: The birth of Jesus has always been linked to worship. The Magi brought gifts to the child who was destined to become “king of the Jews” and worshipped him (Matt 2). The shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem had the Saviour’s birth announced by a carol service of note – delivered by the very angels (Luke 1).

But the very first song associated with the Christmas story is the original work of an unmarried teenage peasant girl. It is the Magnificat of Mary - so-named in Latin thousands of years ago because the first word of the song is ‘magnify.’

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The birth of Jesus has always been linked to worship. The Magi brought gifts to the child who was destined to become “king of the Jews” and worshipped him (Matt 2).

The shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem had the Saviour’s birth announced by a carol service of note – delivered by the very angels (Luke 1).

Music was an early feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations. The earliest examples are chants and litanies intended for liturgical use in observance of both the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany, many of which are still in use by the Eastern Orthodox Church. 1

In the 1200s we had the rise of the carol written in the vernacular (common language). Francis of Assisi began the Christmas tradition of carolling. Before that time, people had listened to priests sing solemn Christmas hymns during formal church services, but Francis wanted people to be able to express their joy by having simple songs they could sing themselves wherever they happened to be, such as in their own homes or even while walking around outside. 2

1 https:// wiki/ Christmas_music 2 http:// od/ MiracleBasics/ f/ How-Did-Francis-Of-Assisi-Begin-The-Christmas-Caroling-Tradition.htm


The word ‘carol’ probably derived from the French ‘carole’, a dance accompanied by singing.

Later, the word came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England. The English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. 1

Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Audelay, a Shropshire priest and poet, who lists 25 “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house. Music in itself soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and Christmas music includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians. 1

1 https:// wiki/ Christmas_music


But in Calvin’s Geneva in Switzerland, anything that remotely resembled pleasure was viewed with suspicion. He allowed neither dancing nor theatre-going, no art other than music - and even that could not involve instruments. Calvin suppressed the celebration of Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the Annunciation.


In America, New England’s Puritan religious leaders did not approve of celebrating Christmas and in part of the 17th century it was even a crime to do so. 1

Consider this historic account about an early 1800’s New England school: on Christmas morning, the headmaster asked the students what day it was and none of them knew.

1 https:// wiki/ Christmas_in_Puritan_New_England


The England government under Cromwell regarded the practice of singing Christmas carols as pagan and sinful. The Protestant Puritans prohibited all celebrations of the Christmas and in 1645 legally abolished Christmas. 1

1 https:// wiki/ Christmas_music


But the voices and festive spirits of English men, women and children were not to be so easily silenced. For the nearly two decades that the ban on Christmas was in place, semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and people continued to sing in secret. Christmas carols essentially went underground. 1

1 culture/story/20141219-when-christmas-carols-were-banned


When in 1660 Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the people of England once again practiced the public singing of Christmas carols as part of the revival of Christmas customs, sanctioned by the king’s own celebrations. 1

Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, England, which is now seen in churches all over the world. 1

1 https:// wiki/ Christmas_music


And not only had the popular Christmas carols of previous eras survived triumphant but interest in them was renewed with passion and exuberance: both the 18th Century and Victorian periods were golden eras in carol-writing, producing many of the treasures that we know and love today – including O Come All Ye Faithful and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. 1

For many people around the world, the Christmas season is often the only time they regularly hear music of a non-pop variety. Today, almost 4 centuries after they were banned, people will still, inevitably, gather joyfully to sing at this time of the year.

2 http:// culture/story/ 20141219-when-christmas-carols-were-banned


The tradition of singing Christmas carols in return for alms or charity began in England in the 17th century after the Restoration. Town musicians or ‘waits’ were licensed to collect money in the streets in the weeks preceding Christmas, the custom spread throughout the population by the 18th and 19th centuries up to the present day 1

1 https:// wiki/ Christmas_music


On Christmas Eve 1818 the carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night! Holy Night) was heard for the first time in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria. The congregation in St. Nicholas Church listened as the voices of the assistant pastor, Joseph Mohr, and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Mohr’s guitar. 1

A song was born that would find its way into the hearts of people throughout the world. Now translated into hundreds of languages, it is sung by untold millions every December from small chapels in the Andes to great cathedrals in Antwerp and Rome. 1

1 ~soundscapes/ VOLUME02/ Silent_Night_History.shtml


Though meant for a performance in a church Silent Night was composed for guitar. That is rather unusual for those days. Joseph Mohr’s guitar (right) still can be seen at Hallein’s Franz Gruber Museum. 1

It was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011. The song has been recorded by a large number of singers from every music genre. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all-time. 2 (Another Christmas song by Bing Crosby, “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all-time.)

1 Ibid 2 https:// wiki/ Silent_Night


James Travis Tritt is an American country music singer and songwriter. In an interview, he related a story about his early years, where he played out-of-the-way joints that sometimes got dangerous. Once, when a bar brawl broke out, Tritt tried something that worked so well it became his standard response when fights started. Tritt said:

“Just when [things] started getting out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, I’d start playing ‘Silent Night.’ It could be the middle of July; I didn’t care.”

Tritt said as he played, grown men would stop everything, calm down and sometimes even start crying. 1

1 From Twang! The Ultimate Book of Country Music Quotations, compiled by Raymond Obstfeld and Sheila Burgener; cited at





But the very first song associated with the Christmas story is the original work of an unmarried teenage peasant girl.

It is the Magnificat of Mary – so named in Latin thousands of years ago because the first word of the song is ‘magnify.’

Luke 1:26-55 … God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married …

… to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.

The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said:

Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.

How will this be, since I am a virgin?

The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.

Then the angel left her.

I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.

At that time Mary got ready…

and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea…

… where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!

But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!

Earlier Mary hears Gabriel say that she has found favour with God and will bear a child who “will be called the Son of God” and whose “kingdom will never end”.

“For nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37 ESV) the angel reassures her, and Mary responds with total readiness, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me according to your world.” (v. 38 ESV)

First the angel’s words; now Elizabeth’s affirmation - Mary can no longer contain herself! The world stands at the edge of the three most important decades in all of history - God was about to change the course of human history and she was to be the vehicle for the fulfilment of the Messianic promises. So she bursts out in song.


My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

Luke 1:46-47 (ESV) And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…”

Notice Mary’s self-description as she praises God. She addresses him as “God my Saviour”. Only sinners need a Saviour. Some teach the immaculate conception of Mary, claiming she was born without a sinful nature, but Mary sees herself as a sinner like all the rest of us, in need of divine rescue.

This is the whole point of the Christmas story – mankind was in desperate need of a Saviour. So God sent his Son to deliver us from captivity to sin and death.


Luke 1:48a (ESV) “for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”

What a difference to the arrogance expressed by many professing Christians today. Mary acknowledges her own littleness in the eyes of the world. Her words reveal that she felt totally unworthy to be chosen by God. She was after all just a poor girl among the thousands who lived poor lives in an obscure village of a captive nation.

… “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 ESV).

Micah 6:8 (ESV) He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


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.

Luke 1:48b (ESV) “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Mary was struck by how at odds God’s ways of choosing are from the ways men tend to choose. God overlooked her poverty and lowly station in life and considered rather her spiritual condition:

“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Luke 1:50 (ESV)

Yet she sees God’s actions toward her as evidence of “his mercy”. And this mercy was not just for Mary but for all “who fear him from generation to generation”.


In the first stanza, we see something wonderful and true about God: He loves the underdog, the disqualified, and the unimpressive. Mary stands before the Lord just like we do - needy, flawed, with nothing to merit His favour… She is amazed at a God who knows her so well and chooses her anyway. So am I. Here’s a gift you won’t find under any tree this season - the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, who has come for you. 1

1 Article/ sermon-christmas-mary-song-magnificat-luke-1


The church is for people who feel their own emptiness. It’s made up of people like those who gathered to David when he was on the run from Saul.

1 Sam 22:2 (ESV) And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him.


That’s the kind of people God is looking for. He loves the forgotten and the passed over. He pledges himself to those who are considered by the world to be nobodies, weak, despised or losers. He shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and he is on the side of those who can’t take care of themselves.

1 Cor 1:26-29 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.


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.

Martin Luther said that the Magnificat “comforts the lowly and terrifies the rich.”

William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, warned his missionaries in India never to read the Magnificat in public. Christians were already suspect in that country and they were cautioned about reading verse so inflammatory. The caste system was so ingrained in Hindu society that this Gospel truth would cause a social revolution for the lowest caste -- the Untouchables or Dalits -- would seize upon it as liberating them from servitude. This is still true today. The message of the Magnificat is “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). 1

1 song-mary-magnificat-luke-146-55


Many Biblical scholars who have written about this passage uses the word “revolutionary” to describe the Magnificat.

For instance William Barclay says that the Magnificat is “a bombshell” that people have read so often that they forget its “revolutionary terror” when it takes “the standards of the world and turns them upside down.”

A revolution means total change. Just think about the way computers have revolutionized the information industry. You can now push a button and you have millions of pieces of information available. Think of the industrial revolution in the 1760s. Machines began to do the work done previously by people. The world has been totally changed by revolutions. 1

1 ministers-blog/ mary-starts-a-revolution


The Magnificat sings of God’s revolution, it lays down the fundamental principles of the Christian revolution. By taking everything that is at the bottom and putting it at the top, God turn everything upside down. God revolutionizes the way we think, the way we act, and the way we live. 1

Luke 1:52-53 (ESV) he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Mary sings of radical reversals from what our world values, magnifying God’s justice for his people. The rich, mighty and powerful (from their thrones) are put at the bottom; the poor, humble and hungry are put at the top. That’s a revolution - God’s revolution.

1 Ibid


Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world” and the value system is different. The world says “Blessed are the assertive, the confident, the proud and the successful”, but Jesus says:


Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness… Blessed are you when people insult you… and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matt 5:3-11)

Mary sings of God’s compassion for the poor; and when you are full of God’s Spirit, you too will have compassion for the poor and the humble. Your values are turned upside down. God’s attitude toward the poor and humble is described as follows:

God remembers them

God respects them

God feeds them

God helps them

God exalts them


Luke 1:51 (ESV) He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…

Lloyd Stilley comments on this verse:

When my boys were young, they would sometimes challenge me arm-wrestling. Because their arm was too short, they would put a book under their elbow and they would go at it, sometimes with two hands and half their body weight. And sometimes I would let them push my arm backward, like they were winning. I would watch them strain and try for a while, and then, at a moment of my choosing, I would just roll them over. And we would laugh; we both knew it was just for fun.  1

1 Article/ sermon-christmas-mary-song-magnificat-luke-1


 But when I think of how many overpaid sports figures, and how many haughty business executives, and how many self-consumed celebrities, and how many prideful political leaders have, in their bloated self-conceit, tried to arm-wrestle with God, and in doing so, walk over people, I think of this verse. Listen, if you’re all caught up in this world’s values; if you’re fresh out of options this morning; if you feel that you’ve been dealt a crumby hand in life, then I have a message for you: Bring your case to the Almighty. Don’t fawn after actors and make fame or wealth your great goal. Don’t despair over which party wins the most seats in congress. Don’t lose sleep over how unfair your boss treats you. And don’t seethe over how wronged you have been in your life. 1

1 Ibid


 Let the song of Mary comfort you: God’s just letting the powerful strengthen their position and exhibit their puny influence for a little while. But one day, He will say, “Enough!” One day, “justice will flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24), washing away the wrong and setting all things right. Bring your case to the Almighty. He is the Helper of the helpless. 1

Mary’s son is destined to uproot all the centres of power men have established on this earth. Her song signals power brokers at every level of society that the end of human prideful strutting and self-centred ambition is at hand.

1 Ibid


Luke 1:52 (ESV) he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;

In his day Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful man on earth. He was full of himself and his achievements until God causes him to lose his sanity. When the judgement is over, he declares: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan. 4:37)


How many times has the Lord deposed the Pharaohs, Goliaths, Herods, Neros, Hitlers, Mussolinis, Husseins and Gadhafis of the world? He breaks their bows; He brings them low. And the meek end up inheriting the earth.

Isa 66:2 “I will look favourably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)


Luke 1:53 (ESV) he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

God passes right by the self-sufficient. He’s looking for people who are hungry for him. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt. 5:6).

Brokenness is seen as a weakness to the world but a sign of strength for the believer - “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume. It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.” (Vance Havner)


This song is sung in the middle of a story about a poor girl, Mary, who is to become the mother of the Son of God. God didn’t choose someone rich; he didn’t choose someone highly educated, he didn’t choose someone from a prominent family – he chose a poor teenager from a third world country, to be his means of bringing the Saviour of mankind into the world.

Mary is using metaphorical speech when she sings “he has filled the hungry with good things”. She wasn’t talking about physical food she had received, nor had she been made materially wealthy – she was the recipient of something far greater – God’s favour, spiritual blessing, becoming a channel by which God would bring salvation to the world.


The way of the Incarnation is the opposite of pride.

Phil 2:5-11 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


Mary’s song means we need to reverse our ambitions if we want to succeed in God’s world. Don’t buy the hype this world system dishes out that says if you’re going to get anywhere in life, you’ve got to be assertive, stand up for your rights, blow your own horn, and pat your own back! There’s a higher law at work than the “law of the jungle.” Jesus gives it to us: 1

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).

So seek humility, not glory. Labour for the Lord, not yourself. Stop caring who gets the credit. Give without expecting anything in return. Take the back seat. That’s the path to greatness in God’s Kingdom. 1

1 Ibid


He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

Luke 1:54-55 (ESV) “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

God remembers his covenants and fulfils his promises. His promises are irrevocable. He doesn’t lie or change his mind.

Rom 11:29b for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.

Num 23:19 God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?

Heb 6:18 so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.


Another song celebrating Jesus’ birth is sung by the angels to the shepherds in the fields at Bethlehem.

Luke 2:8-14 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord…

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying:

Although there have been armed conflicts throughout the history of nations, the ‘enlightened’ 20th century saw more wars than any previous period. Wikipedia lists 355 major wars, revolutions and conflicts in that century. The International Red Cross estimated that over 100 million people were killed in 20th century wars.

Four of the ten most costly wars, in terms of loss of life, were waged in the last century. These are of course the two World Wars, followed by the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Russian Civil War. The death toll of World War II, being 60 million plus, surpasses all other war-death-tolls by a factor of two.


We live in a world where many long for peace but cannot find it.

Worldwide, an estimated 1.6 million people lost their lives to violence in AD 2000. About half were suicides, one-third were homicides, and one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict. Homicide was the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24 (2001). Suicide was the third leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24 (2002).

In AD 2007, approximately 14,000 terrorist incidents occurred worldwide, and deaths caused increased to 22,000 persons. 2013 saw a 61% increase in the number of people killed in terrorist attacks.

What of the numerous wars, public shootings, acts of public terror we see and read of daily on the news media?


In just the current civil war in Syria we have the worst humanitarian crisis of our time where half the country’s pre-war population - more than 11 million people - have been killed or forced to flee their homes.


Just a few days ago 12 people died and a further 48 people were injured after a truck was “intentionally” driven into crowds doing Christmas shopping in Berlin.


In contrast, the rule by the Jesus in the Millennium will be characterized by both national and individual peace.

Isa 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

Isa 14:7 All the lands are at rest and at peace; they break into singing.

Isa 55:12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace…

Isa 54:13 … great will be your children’s peace.

Isa 66:12 I will extend peace to her like a river…


The angels’ song is not “peace on earth”, but “on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” So even today in a world or turmoil, Jesus “the Prince of Peace” can give you peace within.

John 14:11 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.”

John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

True peace does not come from without – but from within. It is not the absence of conflict – it’s the presence of Jesus in your life.

Col 3:15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.


Numbers 6:24-26 “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”


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Scripture quotations taken from the NASB:

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