Luke’s Christmas Cantata

The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel – Luke’s prologue, if you will – are essentially a cantata. Luke punctuates the birth narrative with songs: The Song of Mary. The Song of Zechariah. The Song of the Angels. The Song of Simeon. They’ve made their way into the Christian liturgy and are often known simply by the first words of the Latin text. Magnificat. Benedictus. Gloria in Excelsis. Nunc Dimittis.

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At this time of year, you will often find Christian churches performing Christmas cantatas, musical works that combine songs and the spoken word. I have mixed feelings about this sacred art form. It occurs to me, though, that the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel – Luke’s prologue, if you will – are essentially a cantata. Luke punctuates the birth narrative with songs (or at least with poetic language that we’ve made into songs).

The Song of Mary. The Song of Zechariah. The Song of the Angels. The Song of Simeon. They’ve made their way into the Christian liturgy and are often known simply by the first words of the Latin text. Magnificat. Benedictus. Gloria in Excelsis. Nunc Dimittis.

We Biblically-oriented Christians like to get out our magnifying glasses and closely examine the text. We tend to look for the message and the meaning in at each discrete unit of the narrative. Perhaps we also need to step back to see the forest, not just the trees.

As in all good choral works, there are themes that run through the song’s of Luke’s cantata: God’s fulfillment of his covenant promises, the overthrowing of Israel’s enemies, the deliverance of the faithful and the fulfillment Israel’s purpose.

The Cantata is also a prologue of the gospel. It gives the readers hints about the things to come. This Jesus will demonstrate God’s mighty power to save. In their reception of Jesus, individuals will reveal the truth about themselves. Consequently, Jesus will encounter lethal opposition and divide the community, Jesus and those close to him will experience suffering. And yet, God will be victorious. Jesus will be vindicated. The Holy Spirit will be poured out. The nations of the world will see the light of his glory. Hints of the story to come are sprinkled throughout the narrative and the songs of Luke 1-2.

But songs are not primarily written in order to be logically dissected. They speak to another part of the brain. Most of all, Luke’s prologue is a symphony of praise to God. A triumphant note of doxology fills each song, glorifying God for his mighty deeds in Jesus Christ. Whatever else we do with the texts of Luke 1-2, perhaps that is the tone we should take.