I’ve never written a symphony, but I listen to them all the time. I know they have movements, usually four, some soft and gentle, some brash and clanging, some with gradual and measured steps to a crescendo. I think Luke wrote a symphony about the birth of Jesus with five movements.
The first movement contains an angel’s song to Zachariah that begins, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.” The second movement copies this one and has the angel saying to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” These two movements emphasize the fear that Luke’s readers must have been feeling. Jerusalem had fallen to rubble and now their whole world was falling down around their ears.
The Romans couldn’t tell the difference between a Jew and a Jesus-Jew. Both attended synagogue and both wore those funny clothes. Every other emperor went on a killing spree, killing Jews and Jesus-Jews in towns from Rome to Corinth, and Luke’s readers were frightened. Luke wanted them to hear the words, “Don’t be afraid.” He proposed some wild things like an impossible pregnancy for Elizabeth and a virginal conception for Mary, but he proposed something even more scary: a Kingdom of love that “will have no end.”
“How can I know this?” cry out both Zachariah and Mary. And that’s exactly what Luke’s readers needed to know. The music in these two movements is pleading and beseeching. How can we know that this Jesus message of loving my neighbor (whom I really don’t like) will bring about this life of love that has no end? Is belief enough? Do I just believe? No, in both cases, having a baby, as every woman knows, takes more than just belief, and so does walking in the kingdom.
Now Luke gives us the final three movements; three powerful responses to those fears. First comes Mary’s superb magnificat which has been immortalized by hundreds of composers, including Franz Schubert and Tchaikovsky, and which says in effect: The Mighty One has already done everything but one: he has taken away all our enemies and given us the kingdom; but we must walk on in.
Following this and building on its crescendo is Zechariah’s Praise the Lord. Once again, why be afraid when God has sent us the Messiah who will “guide our feet into the way of peace”? These two resounding movements bring us headlong into the suddenly peaceful strains of the Nunc Dimittis, “Okay, Lord, I’m ready to go.” And the symphony is over.
I don’t know if Luke meant to make music; it’s clear he was a poet and many musicians have put his poems to music. I think it’s obvious he wasn’t writing history. The appearances of talking angels sound more like stories that start with “Once upon a time.” We know the writers of the Bible used whatever genre of writing made sense to them at the time: poetry, parables, psalms and prophesy, were just a few.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book, “The First Christmas,” call these infancy narratives: parables. I call them symphonies; I hear music when I read them. My two author friends seem to agree with me when they end their book with a hymn we have all sung:
“Joy to the world; the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room And let heaven and nature sing And let heaven — and heaven — and nature sing.”
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