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Advent III: Singing Resistance
before the sermon a portion of Earth, Wind and Fire’s Sing a Song will be played…
It’s hard for me not to feel joy when a song like that is playing…I don’t know if you’re like me, but a certain song can change the trajectory of a day, at least for a little while. It can cast out the gloom, sharpen up my soul and make me ready for the next challenge. A song can the the antidote for hopelessness…
Well, you may not have noticed, but songs feature heavily in Luke’s Gospel.Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened. The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their “good news of great joy” with the shepherds. And Simeon sings his song of farewell once he has seen God’s promises to Israel kept in the Christ child. Singing is all over the place, and it is often singing about Joy…maybe joy that is already here, maybe joy that is expected, joy that is coming. It is singing to change the scenario, singing to bring about change, singing as resistance.
In this passage today we hear what is often called “The Magnificant.” It’s a song, known also as the canticle or the song of Mary, and has often been sung throughout liturgical history. In fact, it is widely recognized as one of the oldest hymns we have. Though we tend to read it now, it used to be sung, just the Psalms. Luke knows this long history of singing, and the role that it plays in communities that are struggling and seeking God’s help. It could even be argued that Luke mirrors the language of Hannah from 1Samuel, where Hannah sing her own song of longing and promise. In both cases, these mothers lament the world as it is, seek a child and through this child they see God’s action in the world bringing transformation. Both Hannah and Elizabeth are too old to bear a child, and Mary is so young she is not yet married. They probably knew how little account the world would pay them, likely had experienced it already. And there, tucked away in the hill country of Judea, far from the courts of power and influence, they bear witness to how hard life is under Roman oppression. And in the face of this despair and oppression, they sang. They sang of their faith in God’s promise to transform the world, to upend the powers that be, and to lift up all those who had been knocked down. When things look bleak, one of the most unexpected and powerful things you can do is sing, for it helps usher in joy. Joy is very different than happiness, you understand, not even necessarily what we might call a “happy” emotion. Joy is the awareness that pain is necessary, suffering is part of life and that it is the struggle which helps us create meaning.
Singing often comes from this place of deep joy, an understanding that beyond the storm cloud lies a rainbow. Many of the Psalms are sung by a people conquered and imprisoned in Babylon, yearning for something else. The songs of the slaves in this country echo these calls for justice and freedom, reaching for liberation as a dream which was clearly far from becoming reality. The civil rights movement to come would embrace song as well, singing, “We Shall Overcome” like a mantra as they marched amongst water cannons and attack dogs. That is the same spirit that fills Zechariah and Simeon and Mary, hope coming out of their lungs into the world carried on a melody.
Sometimes when words alone fail us, when actions are hard to determine and the path forward is unknown at best, when joy seems a distant possibility, and hope feels lost, a song can accomplish what we cannot otherwise determine. This may be why we often get nostalgic round this time of year and we sing songs that contain theology or language we’d never use any other time, but which convey something beyond those words…for there is something in the combination of melody and lyric, harmony and rhythm, that expands our souls. There is power in the Christmas carol that awakens something warm in us during the frozen days of winter. The music helps us to imagine newness, to awaken hope and to bring forth some brightness in a dark time. And that music is all around us, sitting right next to us in church every Sunday.
So, rather than a long expository unpacking of the words of Mary, I thought we might peruse our hymnals for signs of this protest music hidden in the familiar. If you will turn with me in the New Century Hymnal to #116, a hymn we sing all the time around Advent. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” derives from the same effort that Luke used to get Mary’s words. The words of Isaiah are often used to describe Jesus, as if Jesus was who Isaiah was predicting would arrive when he said, “The Lord will give you a sign: This virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel, God with us.” It isn’t. Isaiah was speaking to his time and his people, but when Jesus came around and the disciples could not make sense of who he was and what he was up to, the words of Isaiah came to mind, maybe they even sung them one day, and they made a parallel – Jesus is just like whoever Isaiah was speaking of…he is “God with us,” he is Emmanuel. This announcement was revolutionary…listen to the words of freedom and liberation as we sing together, verses 1, 6 & 7.
Did you hear it? Did you hear the melody of resistance?
Now let’s try #119, which is a catchy little tune but the words are direct and confrontational. It was written by a physician, Dr. Miriam Therese Winter, who has traveled the world, ministering with her medical skills to homeless and helpless people in places such as the Thai-Cambodian border and to starving children in Ethiopia. She knows something of injustice and suffering as she writes these lyrics. Let’s sing together verses 1, 4 & 5.
The lyrics sing of a turning of the world, of a time in which the things that seem to plague us as human beings — many of which we do to one another — plague us no longer for God’s love has intervened.
And, finally, though Christmas is not yet here…a Christmas song. #153 in the hymnal, written fairly recently from the Iona community in Scotland, this hymn speaks of this same promise that fuels all our hopes and dreams. It announces joy by announcing the unexpected, the arrival of heaven on earth, born in a baby, unlikely and small. It might be strange to think of this as a protest or resistance song, but what could be more resistant to the pull of American Empire, to the surge of hyper-individualism and the era of the “self-made man” than such a fragile image? What could be more of a protest to racism, sexism, xenophobia and fear than the presence of love in a baby, the announcement of God’s vision and kin-dom in a manger, born to the poorest of couples in the smallest of places? Let’s sing together…
We sing our joy. This Advent season as we wait for heaven to come to earth, we sing our joy. This Christmas as we will announce again the baby born to save us all from ourselves, we will sing our joy. Hallelujah. Amen.