Watching inexpressible joy swell up inside someone is a wonderful thing to witness. You may recall seeing it happen to Mary in the Christmas story. One moment she’s talking to her relative Elizabeth about how God has supernaturally blessed her with a baby and the next she’s bursting into song (Lk 1:39-56). It makes for a pretty hilarious scenario to imagine.
MARY: Hey cousin, how are you?
ELIZABETH: Hey Mary! I heard something amazing happened to you!
MARY: Haha! Word travels fast Liz!
ELIZABETH: Oh, ho, ho, ho! Did you see that? Little John the Baptist just jumped inside my belly!
MARY: I did! That was mildly terrifying!
ELIZABETH: He’s just so happy for the savior to be born!
MARY: I know right!? It just… It just… It just makes you want to sing!
ELIZABETH: It does though, doesn’t it?
MARY: My soul magnifies the Looooord!!!
ELIZABETH: Oh, we’re gonna do this right now?
MARY: And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviooooor!!!!
ELIZABETH: Very well then.
Mary goes on to sing quite a few stanzas before wrapping up her song which we refer to as the Magnificat (which is Latin for “magnifies”—one of the first words in the song). Mary is so overwhelmed with joy that she presents us with one of the first musicals, breaking into song out of nowhere. This, of course, strikes mosts of us as a little odd.
This spontaneous musical element is one of the hardest things for me to buy into in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth. His books are full of wizards and magic and mythical creatures, but the most unbelievable scenes for me are when characters in his books break out into song (which seems to happen very, very often). These spontaneous moments are always somehow perfect in meter and rhyme, because ain’t nobody freestyle better than a hobbit or a dwarf.
Yet, these broadway moments in Tolkien’s books bear resemblance to Mary’s song in Luke’s Gospel. Mary can’t hold her blessings in anymore, so she sings them out. “When we are normal we talk. When we are dying we whisper. But when there is more in us than we can contain, we sing,” says Eugene Peterson. “When we are healthy we walk. When we are decrepit we shuffle. But when we are beyond ourselves in vitality, we dance.”
Looking at it from Peterson’s perspective, maybe this kind of joy isn’t really as strange as it seems. After all, if you’re like me, you make up songs about what you’re doing all the time. You don’t just wash the dishes, you, “washing the dishes, ba daba doo wah!” You don’t just bathe the children, you, “scrub, scrub, scrub till we’re clean, clean, clean!” You don’t just get a paycheck, you, “money, money, money, I got paid today!” And then a few hours later you, “goodbye money, you know I hate those bills!” Perhaps you make up a random song while trying to get the kids to go to bed. Perhaps you hum an unknown melody while cleaning the house. Or maybe you create words to the musical theme of the video game you’ve been playing all day.
Nobody illustrates this habit better than Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers. It seems she can turn anything into a ridiculous song. In fact, it feels like she’s required to do so at least once an episode. For example, after Teddy (a usual customer who drops by the burger shop every day) confesses to Linda that her husband Bob is his best friend, she jumps right in, making a song up on the spot.
Linda makes Mary’s experience all the more realistic to us as she becomes the joyful example of the music inside us. We often walk to a beat and skip sidewalk cracks to stay on that beat, turning them into visual measures; our heart keeps time in the silence; we sing loudly in our cars to ourselves and the person we accidentally butt-dialed; we get ear worms stuck in our heads for 3 days straight; we speak things with a rhythm;9 and we might even yawn melodically.
Have you had a Magnificat moment of your own where your joy turns to song? Saint Francis of Assisi’s biographer, Thomas of Celano, recorded an interesting moment like this in Francis’ life.
When the sweetest melody of spirit would bubble up in him, he would give exterior expression to it in French, and the breath of the divine whisper which his ear perceived in secret would burst forth in French in a song of joy. At times, as we saw with our own eyes, he would pick up a stick from the ground and putting it over his left arm, would draw across it, as across a violin, a little bow bent by means of a string; and going through the motions of playing, he would sing in French about his Lord. This whole ecstasy of joy would often end in tears and his song of gladness would be dissolved in compassion for the passion of Christ. Then this saint would bring forth continual sighs, and amid deep groanings, he would be raised up to heaven, forgetful of the lower things he held in his hand.
One other thing to note before we move on is what Mary’s joyful song is a reaction to. As great as it is that the Holy Spirit supernaturally gave her a baby, most people probably aren’t going to believe her. Would you?
Her neighbors will consider her to have had a baby outside of wedlock. She will be ridiculed when she insists that she is virgin—so much so that she’ll probably just stop telling people about the miracle. She will most likely have to endure name-calling and judgmental looks, for even the pharisees may have been doing some heavy implying when they told Jesus that they “were not born of sexual immorality” (Jn 8:41).
And in case other people’s reactions aren’t difficult enough to stomach, just imagine the things that she herself has to go through. Given Mary’s world at the time, she was most likely just a thirteen to fifteen year old girl. She may hardly even be aware of what a period is yet, but now she’s pregnant and experiencing all of the emotional and physical difficulty that comes along with that. On top of all of this, her fiancé’s first natural thought is that she cheated on him as he originally planned to “divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19).
Despite all of this, Mary decides to respond with abundant joy. And sure, she probably wrote the song later and had it added into Luke’s Gospel while he was writing it rather than just spontaneously make it up, but the joy communicated in this passage is clear.
What are the hardships you’re responding to? Are you doing it like Mary? Are you embracing joy rather than sorrow? Do you carry God’s promises with a glowing face or a downcast one?
She is hope to us all. For if she can carry the world’s disdain with joy, then we, too, can walk in the happiness of God.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.
Peterson, Eugene H. Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Summon You from Self to Community. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1993, p. 30.
Thomas of Celano. The Second Life of St. Francis. p. 127. Translated by Placid Hermann in Marion A. Habig, ed., St Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies. English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1973, p. 467.