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The Power of Song
December 23, 2012
Of all the liturgical seasons of the church year, the Advent/Christmas season is the most closely associated with songs. In fact, it’s almost impossible to celebrate Christmas without music. The message of God’s coming among us in Christ Jesus can’t simply be told; it must be sung.
At least that was the conviction of the writer of the third Gospel. Luke doesn’t just tell the story of Christ’s birth, he sings it. To be specific, Luke inserts three songs, or canticles, into the narrative of Christ’s birth. We just sang one of Luke’s canticles, the one called “the Magnificat,” in which Mary sings about how, through the birth of her son, all the world would be blessed according to God’s promise to Abraham. Then Luke records the Song of Zechariah, which we sang for our Act of Praise. Zechariah, you recall, was Elizabeth’s husband, John’s father, and at his birth Zechariah sings about the dawning of God’s mercy “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” And when Luke tells of Mary and Joseph’s bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple for the customary blessing, old Simeon breaks into song: “…my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Perhaps we haven’t given sufficient attention to why songs—whether Mary’s, Zechariah’s, Simeon’s, or our own—are so essential to the Christmas story.
Consider, then, the power of songs. We began our worship this morning singing, “Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, never dies away.” That song started quietly with a lone instrument, was then picked up by single voice, and gathered strength as choir and congregation joined in. We weren’t just singing about something, but rather the act of singing itself helped to kindle the fire of God’s spirit among us, a fire that never dies away.
Those of you who were here for our Lessons and Carols last Sunday experienced the power of song. At the rehearsal on Saturday, Ara instructed the choir that the scripture readings for the service carried the message of God’s redemption, and that the songs illumined the readings. That, I thought, was an apt comment on the power of song. Yes, the entire service could have been limited to the reading of scriptures, which would have been enough to allow us to comprehend the message. But the music, the songs, illuminate the scriptures in a way that enable us to experience the light of God breaking in upon us.
On Monday morning, I received an e-mail from one of our members who had been deeply moved by the Lessons and Carols service, as I know many of you were. He expressed his experience this way: “I don’t remember a single logical thought during the entire service. What I remember is the feeling that every single cell in my body had been washed over—that’s it—washed over—by some beauty and goodness that can’t be articulated.” Such is the power of song.
And that’s why it wasn’t enough for Luke merely to describe how Mary felt. He put a song on her lips. In some ways it’s a very old song. It’s modeled after Hannah’s song in I Samuel, and it echoes verses from Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and others. Luke makes clear that Mary’s song incorporates the whole history of God’s unfolding promise to change the world. Mary burst into song because she recognizes that the gift of the Christ child is not simply for her benefit, but rather it is for the peace of the whole world first promised through Abraham. Mary rejoices in song, knowing that God’s promise of peace on earth, good will to all was coming to life. The same was true of Zechariah and Simeon. Prose alone can’t adequately convey the Christmas story; it has to be illumined with song.
But while songs are powerful, we know that they are sometimes difficult. The violence of these last days has robbed many of us of our voice. We wonder how to sing “for unto us a child is born” when we think of those parents from whom a child has been taken; those twenty families whose child did not come home from school; those families who had already wrapped Christmas presents that will never be opened; those families who will struggle, not just this holiday but for many to come. How do we sing “Joy to the World” when we remember all those who mourn, or are lonely, or hungry, who live in places of strife and war, or who struggle with mental illness. Songs are powerful, but sometimes suffering and loss make it difficult for us to raise our voices beyond a hoarse whisper.
Yet perhaps this year of all years, we are called to lift our voices in song. Not to do so would signal our capitulation to the power of sin and death. To become discouraged to the point of silence is to allow this darkness to deepen and spread. But to sing, as Mary did, on behalf of all who mourn, who are downtrodden and oppressed, is an act of defiant noncompliance, a way to pierce the darkness and send death’s dark shadow in retreat. Singing, you see, doesn’t just convey ideas, it also helps create the reality we voice. God has promised to change the world, and in singing we enter into that reality and join with Mary, Zechariah and Simeon in its work. The carols, canticles and hymns of the season acknowledge the trouble in our world while also giving voice to the hope that trouble won’t last forever. If there has ever been a time to sing of God’s peace, justice and mercy, this is that time—this is that season.
So, like Mary, let’s raise our voices in order to magnify the Lord. Mary’s song does magnify the Lord. She makes God’s goodness larger. She brings God’s gracious intentions for the world into sharper focus. Her song helps us to see more clearly that God craves justice, defends the lowly, and lifts up all who are downtrodden.
My friends, this is what we can do with our lives. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Sing, if you can sing, and if not, still be musical inside yourself.” May the sound of God’s redeeming love reverberate in your soul, while the grace notes of God’s peace strike chords of joy, and the drum roll announcing the coming of God’s justice guide our feet in the way of peace. May our lives become the song that rings out the news, the good news: Christ was born to save. Christ was born to save.