The American search for the “true meaning of Christmas” intrigues and frustrates me. As children we just did not have this problem: we were too thrilled with the trappings of covetous anticipation to notice the metallic taste of “vanity of vanities” somewhere in the shreds of wrapping paper. But then we grew up. And so, we watch television specials all month, usually featuring a burnt-out workaholic who has to “rediscover” some hidden secret of holiday happiness which, as it happens, might actually be the whole secret of human existence. As we do this, we often sense the intolerable weight of obligation to fulfill an ever-increasing number of materialistic holiday demands while at the same time sensing the need to reconstruct artificially the fuzzy feelings (and fuzzy premises) allegedly at the heart of these holidays. All of this tends to end with exhaustion, grumpiness, alienation, and the nagging sensation that Vanity Fair has overlooked something. And it has.
Of course, the meaning of this season of waning daylight can only be found in the momentous, earth-shattering arrival of the Coming One through whom all times, items, ideas, and people have any meaning whatsoever. At the heart both of the Fast of Advent and of the Feast of Christmas lies the intrusion of the living God, the Almighty Creator as a Man into his own creation, all to save it from sin and to bring it to glory. To be sure, this is much more momentous than what the typical holiday seeker of spirituality and meaning is looking for. But the coming of the Messiah does not merely restore Christmas carols to their original childlike gleam or redeem gaudy decorations to be put up without restraint. When Jesus comes, it changes everything.
And this is what gave Mary reason to sing as she did to her cousin Elizabeth in what we know as the Magnificat. By God’s choice, she who was simply an impoverished adolescent girl from a forsaken family in an insignificant town was given the simple Good News that she need not fear. By way of Gabriel and his message, she who had never known hope apart from what the prophets had promised centuries beforehand now knew that she had found favor with God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, she who had never lain with a man would conceive, carry, and bear a Son who would be called the Son of God and who would sit on the throne of his forefather David forever. And though she gave her affirmative acceptance of the will of God then and there, it is in her song that it all spills out to Elizabeth, and to us.
As Mary stands and praises the God of Abraham, she weaves throughout her song an understanding of the Gospel which carries with it loads of meaning for the birth of this boy and for the whole rest of the world. Why does Mary magnify the Lord? Why does her spirit rejoice in God her Savior? It is because he regarded her lowliness, stooped down from heaven and exalted her by choosing her to be the mother of the Son of God, the Son of David, the Lord of all things, and the Savior of his people. He in his grace and mercy had shown his power, love, and mysterious wisdom in exalting such a lowly, humble, meek, and otherwise insignificant girl to that pivotal place in his redemptive plans for history. He magnified her, so she magnifies him.
But as Mary considers God’s holiness, might, and mercy, she quickly understands that the inconceivable change in her life that she has experienced pours out into the rest of the world in the same way. The coming of Messiah means the Great Reversal of all things as he enters into his Kingdom. Those who are wise in their own eyes are scattered by the wisdom of God. Those who grasped power for themselves are thrust down even as the meek and humble are exalted to the top. Those who are hungry are finally fed, while those who have denied them sustenance waste away apart from him. And most importantly, God’s broken people, who had suffered so obviously and for so long under the weight of sin, guilt, hunger, plague, sword, and death, would finally enter into the blessing and rest promised to Abraham so many centuries before.
Mary here grasps and fleshes out in her song one of the central truths of the Gospel: her son Jesus Christ accomplished the Great Reversal. His lowly birth, lowly life, and lowly death were reversed when he experienced his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, which means that not only has the curse on his people been turned to blessing, but the tables have been turned throughout the whole of reality. All of life finds its purpose and meaning only in this Man and in submission to his authority, and all of life will be judged by him on the Last Day when he comes again in glory. That little first-trimester baby, who lay in Mary’s womb as she sang this song, is now and ever King of kings and Lord of lords: holy is his name, and his mercy on those who fear him through all generations.
Meaning in general can be tenuous, artificial, even synthetic, and never more so than around the month of December. But in the midst of the holiday blues or a nagging ennui, we have in Mary’s song a vibrant reminder that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, that God in Christ will make all things new, and that God in Christ has magnified us who believe in his mercy, to the point that we will be called blessed by all generations.
And that, boys and girls, is the true meaning of Christmas.