Christmas Day: Mary’s Song

By Leeann Shaw Younger

Advent Devotional | December 25, 2021

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
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 1:46-50 (Read Luke 1)

We didn’t practice Advent when I was young. I didn’t know much about the season until I went to college. In my world, Advent was mostly the run-up to the BIG DAY.

My brother and sisters and I spent what I now know as Advent practicing how we would walk down the stairs on Christmas morning.

The important thing was that no one got to the Christmas tree sooner than anyone else.

So, we practiced our Christmas Day ritual like athletes preparing for a big game. Like most kids, on Christmas morning we’d wake up in the middle of the night and wait for the sun to rise before heading to the stairs in our footie pajamas. We slid more than we walked down the wooden staircase, with the older two of us standing side-by-side, each gripping the back of one of our younger siblings’ pajamas. Our intentionally slow and over-rehearsed descent was serious business. Until we reached the last step.

Then, the excitement launched us into a collective sprint to the tree.

For us, the big day was indeed BIG. We were a poor family. But you couldn't tell by looking under our tree. My parents made sure to overwhelm us, both with the number of packages and by surprising us with that season’s most popular toys. My Dad was a steelworker, and our family cycled through rhythms of plenty and want due to layoffs necessitated by random market fluctuations. But somehow, for my siblings and I, all of that uncertainty receded to the shadows on Christmas morning.

By the time I was in middle school, we siblings had given up our Christmas Day stair ritual. However, I grew to understand that our family had another ritual in those days before Christmas.

For our family, the “most wonderful time of the year” was overflowing with a palpable sense of stress. My parents would come home from running unknown errands clearly upset. My Dad, especially, grew silent and withdrawn. As a kid, I just knew there was a sadness that we weren’t supposed to speak about.

I was an adult before I understood that our holiday ritual of anxiety centered on my parents’ fear that they wouldn’t be able to provide Christmas for their four children.

Once, a ministry friend of mine told me that he felt that waking up on Christmas morning without toys might make it hard for kids to know that they were loved by God.

I don’t agree with him. I’m convinced from my own experience that the persistent troubles characteristic of growing up in poverty can influence what children think about God’s love—or its absence—more than any Christmas gift.

But the overwhelming display of gifts under the tree that I remember as a child is likely proof that my parents were driven by my friend’s logic. They wanted my siblings and me to know that we were loved.

They wanted us to know that, poor or not, Christmas was for us too.

After I started practicing Advent in college, I found new ways to spend my days preparing for Christmas. I loved the symbolism of the candles in the Advent wreath. I still enjoy taking time to intentionally reflect on what it means to anticipate the coming of Jesus. I loved reading about angels having the nerve to appear out of nowhere while telling people not to be afraid!

It was in my newly developed Advent tradition that I was introduced to the song Mary sings as she celebrates the promises of God being fulfilled in the life of her soon-to-arrive Messiah-son. It’s a song of praise about the goodness of God in the face of dire circumstances.

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
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 1:46-50

Because we live in the wake of the Resurrection, it’s easy to focus on the clear sense of joy in the song. But things couldn’t have been much worse at that time. The Roman empire dominated Israel. Mary and her people suffered the humiliations of being powerless in the face of a powerful occupier. And let’s not forget that Mary’s personal situation—poor, pregnant, and unwed—could have gotten her killed.

And yet, it’s in that context that Mary sings a song of expectation. She’s heard the stories of God’s faithfulness to her people and she sings the words testifying to that faithfulness that have been passed from generation to generation. Her expectations are clear because they are shaped by her understanding of what God has done and what God has promised to do. The baby she’s carrying is a part of God’s plan to turn the world toward justice.

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.
—Luke 1:52-53

Unjust rulers brought low. The humble lifted up. The hungry filled and the rich sent away.

In other words, the coming of Christ(mas) was to be very good news for the poor. The whole story tells us this. Angels visit lowly (and stinky!) shepherds as the Savior of the world is born among animals to a pregnant, unwed teenager whose situation was scandalous according to the tradition of her time.

If Christmas is for anyone, it’s for the people who cannot imagine that Jesus would come for them.

The siren song of materialism obscured this truth from my parents. They tried to prove their love and worth with their significantly (and now I know, unjustly) limited resources. The holiday that was meant to bring good news to their fear of being worthless was literally buried under a mountain of wrapping paper, bows, and ribbons.

I suspect that many of us, poor or not, struggle to hear the truth of Mary’s song over the din of commercials convincing us to counter our own fears of worthlessness with yet another gift purchase.

We live in a world desperate for Jesus-followers to not just sing the truth of Mary’s song, but to live it.

I’m not against gifts or any of the excitement of Christmas traditions. In fact, I am a neighborhood pastor passing out Christmas gifts this year to anxious parents who struggle financially, the way my parents did.

Even so, I’m grateful to lead a congregation committed to going beyond gift-giving to living into the call to be a justice-oriented community of faith. Some of us are rich and some of us are poor. Together, we sing Mary’s song, committing ourselves to each other and to the hard work Jesus calls us to do to make His kingdom a reality. Right here. Right now.

Because Christmas Day will come and go, but, as Mary told us, the Advent of the Christ will never end.

—Leeann Shaw Younger is Pastor of Cityview Church. She worked for the CCO from 1989-1993.