The First Christmas Carols: Ave Maria


Luke 1:26-28, 39-42 ESV

[26] In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, [27] to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. [28] And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

[39] In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, [40] and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. [41] And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, [42] and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

Today’s carol is a familiar one globally. Anyone in the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Lutheran traditions have heard this song at some point. If you’ve been to a Catholic wedding or funeral, it pops up from time to time. But the basis of the song extends beyond its musical beauty or even its deep meaning as a prayer.

The first two sections of the lyrics are found in our text today. We’ll look at the Luke sections for our purposes, as the third component of the text is from the gospel of John.

The first section represents the awe-inspiring moment, when, Mary is approached by the angel, Gabriel. He says, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” This moment is so much bigger than it sounds. To really picture it, think of it like this: God has looked down on the earth. What He sees is a world in turmoil, a creation in chaos, and a solution for it all. And so He sends a messenger, an angel, who leaves the throne room of Heaven and travels to find a young girl, engaged to be married, living in a small town.

In the angel’s message is the hope of all humankind—past, present, and future. When the angel Gabriel stands before Mary, the entire fabric of all that has ever been, is, or ever will be, will change the moment he appears. And so he appears, he approaches, he speaks, and his first words, after having just left the company of Heaven is, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

Do you hear what she heard, the magnitude of the message? You are favored, you are loved, you are blessed. She heard that the Lord is with her, that in the midst of her life, whatever has been, whatever is going on now, and whatever is to come after this glorious moment, the Lord is with her. He is setting her up for comfort and for relationship. God will be her God and be so in a way she has yet to know. The only way she will be able to understand it is in the prayer she prays afterwards, but that is next week’s message.

Now, lets skip ahead, and we now find Mary going to spend time with her cousin, Elizabeth. We learn that Elizabeth is with child, the child being John the baptizer. She has prayed for a child and had yet to be able to get pregnant. But an angel appears to her husband, a priest, and says that the Lord has heard Elizabeth’s prayer. This child would be a true prophet, turning many people’s hearts to God.

My favorite moment in all this is when Mary speaks, and at the sound of her voice, John (in the womb) jumps! Elizabeth knew that Mary was favored. She says to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Can you imagine the fear that Elizabeth might have just eliminated in Mary (if she had any), when she affirms the presence of God within her, and confirms the message of the angel? And sweet Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, as the text tells us, says all this with a shout.

These moments, they are real, they are precious, and they are all for us. We have in this scripture, in this song that you heard a bit ago, in the prayer that our Catholic family shares, the witness of both Heaven and Earth declaring the Lordship of Jesus. Both the natural and the supernatural recognizing God’s favor on Mary and God’s presence in the baby that will be born.

God has chosen to use the image of the everyday in order to remind us every day of His presence and power. The Holy has chosen to dwell among the unholy, and call it up to glory. And Christmas is about exactly that. An ordinary girl, a nervous fiancé, and a child with a future that is yet to be seen. It is so normal, it is so familiar, and it is the way God has chosen to be on display.

May we look to this holy family this Christmas, to something we can all see and touch and understand and see that God’s salvation is being worked out in the ordinary. May we let God touch our souls in deeper ways that before. May we see our salvation in Mary’s womb and experience redemption through the child she offers to the world. Amen.

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