Singing the Faith

sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:39-55)

Having sung there with Mary (a setting of the Magnificat, ELW #251), we’re going to reflect on songs.

After all, this is a season of songs, on your lips, and perhaps even inspiring your heart to leap for joy. So today let’s consider a bit of why we sing.

First off, especially as we are doing it here, it is good to remember that we sing because it is enjoyable. Our choir had to put lots of hard work into preparing for The Messiah and Steadfast practices weekly, so it’s not always easy. It can be challenging, but rewarding and—yes, indeed—fun! Singing is just plain a good thing to do. This isn’t drudgery or dirges that we sing here, though we’ll come back to that and also to more on emotions.

The second immediate thing to note is that this task of trying to say words about our singing is mostly futile. Rather than diving into the deep end of “why” and trying to describe it, we’ll be best-served in the end by going ahead and doing the thing, letting loose our tongues and raising our voices. The reasons are too deep and multifaceted and overlapping to sort out, so spirit-filled we can’t rationalize it. Singing is like poetry, then. We probably notice the most frequent kind of poems are love poems, and the commonest songs are love songs. An essay on love just plain wouldn’t work, right? It can’t be explained or captured like that. That’s true of the spirit of our singing, as well.

Also indescribable is that songs are things of beauty. That can be simple elegance, like the chant we are using for this season, ancient melodies—one line of music that takes small, gentle steps. Other times, as we said, it’s not simple. There are huge, complex harmonies and melismas, of one word getting many notes. Listen to this bit with Rebecca and Tim from The Messiah (“Every valley shall be exalted”). Sure, it’d be quicker just to read those words, but it would lose the feeling and beauty. Communication isn’t just message, but medium. That song does exactly what it says: it exalts! Just imagine speaking that in monotone: shall be exalted.

That may also remind us that singing is natural. When we talk, our voice goes up in excitement or gets hushed in suspense. And singing is just sustained speaking. So if you can talk, you can sing! That’s a notion that my dad and probably any music instructor has had to combat: people claiming they can’t sing. Even for those of you thinking it right now, it’s just not true. Singing is so natural it doesn’t need to be taught—though, like any skill, you can learn to do it better.

With that, we might notice music as an art. We’re at a difficult point in history with arts, so used to having experts not only producing the art but also expert critics erecting further barriers by defining for us what is good art versus bad art. We get stuck with a sense, then, that it involves mastery, that singing should be done by a performer, partly because they’re very, very talented at it, but also because they can make money by doing it. Our songs have been capitalized.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t appreciate performances. We can enjoy being at concerts. We’d have to expect that the shepherds in their fields having the whole heavenly chorus show up for a late-night performance would’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience. The beauty and majesty of the angels’ song left them in awe.

But those shepherds were likely also tapping their toes along with it, swaying and dancing to the tune. Maybe they even “repeated the sounding joy” when they went to tell others, echoing it and explaining, “the angels’ song went kind of like this.” Whenever we sing “Gloria,” we’re imitating or resonating with (literally re-sounding) the angels’ song at Christmas. Maybe the shepherds were, then, the first tribute band.

Or maybe they made up a new song, putting it in their own voice and key. This is another mark of why singing is so much a part of us: it is creative, using creativity. That identity ties us to God the Creator, and it is part of living as creatures. We are not only created, but also creative. We weren’t made to be mechanistic robots. We were created to be co-creators, to join the innovations of life in this world. So we could say that God’s Word not only spoke us into existence (“let there be light”), but sang us into existence, and that we reverberate with that and continue in improvising with creativity. This might be how we understand the instruction repeated in the Psalms, to “sing a new song to the Lord.”

It becomes all the more amazing that creativity doesn’t lead to chaos. It is not that we each have our own songs competing and ratcheting up the volume to overpower other voices around us. Rather, singing becomes shared communally. It is, at heart, a social and not solo enterprise. Rebecca compared it to sharing candles on Christmas Eve, becoming more than the sum of parts.

We join in because we’re drawn in, like those toe-tapping shepherds. It moves us, emotionally but also quite literally, and more than we typically realize. In that sense of motion, songs change our energy, like the inspiration from pep bands or the rhythms of work songs. Others calm and sooth us, like lullabies. I was once at a workshop with Marty Haugen discussing how hard it is to sing when you’re tired. It’s exercise, using our whole bodies, which Rebecca calls marvelous wind instruments. There are muscles in our guts, and our expanding lungs, and our brains, and the flow of blood, eyes, ears, tongues.

And, of course, there is the vibration of our vocal chords. It is remarkable that when we sing in unison, we are actually, physically united. It’s responsive, because we have to listen. But even more, we vibrate together. For all that is different and unique about us and each of our bodies, in that moment of singing not only are we joined in the same song and breathing the same air, but our vocal chords are in sync, bodies synchronized and united together.

This is good for us to pay attention to because we have a diminished sense of these connections, compared to the ancient and medieval world. Back then, it was seen that the whole universe vibrated with these eternal tones, the music of the spheres, as it was known. Planets and the sun were understood to cycle with a rhythm. That meant our lives were best lived in harmony (again, in the quite literal musical sense) with these larger natural patterns. So even mathematics, medicine, and astronomy were seen as musical endeavors.

That vast communal, joining power of song we also realize when we describe music as its own language. If we don’t know the words to a song, much less speak different languages, still we can relate and hum together. Our song can be a form of expression even when we don’t have words. Perhaps you find yourself humming absent-mindedly when you are content, for example.

But to stay with knowing the words, for a moment, that is a large influence for our singing together here at church. We like these songs, these old favorites. It’s not just the jingles for commercials that get lodged in our brains. Putting words to music helps us to memorize, truly to “know by heart.” We love the Christmas story better because we have these songs. It’s ongoing communication, to tell the story, proclaiming and receiving good news. Singing God’s message simultaneously makes us angels for each other, including from our Sunday School children in their program this morning! We even sing to remind ourselves. And the songs stick with us when memories fade otherwise. Kathy was visiting Nola Jacobson this week in the hospital and sang “Away in a Manger” to her. And though Nola couldn’t join in, still the song brought a smile to her face.

That’s another of the benefits: our voices combine with saints of generations before us, and likely generations to come. We carry songs with us, and also send them beyond us, through time and across distances, with sound waves of music remaining clear.

Maybe, again thinking of this as so natural, we recall whales can sing through thousands of miles of ocean depths. Birds communicate different messages by their song. Even bats, with voices too high for us to hear, know their place in the universe by singing.

That awareness from our fellow creatures reminds us of this enormous symphonic chorus our voices are part of, “as heaven and nature sing.” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” recognizes it, too, saying “angel hosts, his praises sing; let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring evermore and evermore.”

We’re getting close to the center here, that the purpose of our song may be for praise, and so indelibly linked to worship and lifting our spirits. We also offer prayer to God as our voices rise to heaven or beckon God to come into our midst (making it fitting our prayers are framed by “Come, Hope of unity, make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.”)

For expressing ourselves, our songs are filled with emotions, almost unmatched in intimacy yet also a shared form of expression. They celebrate happiness, joy, love. They may be indeed dirges, because it is honest and needed for us to lament and grieve, maybe at the same time expressing compassion and hope. This week, a homeless man was singing to me on the phone, with sadness and yearning in his voice, from Elvis’ song “If Every Day was Like Christmas.”

That brings us, at last, back to Mary’s song. In her words of dashing the proud and filling the hungry and lowly with good things, we may wonder: are these words of hope and longing, for what Christmas may be or what our world become? Is Mary predicting the future of what Jesus will accomplish and God continues striving for? Are these words, as we put them on our lips, serving to change us, to inspire our hearts and—by the voice of the Holy Spirit—to transform our lives? It’s an interesting word Mary chooses, not only that she proclaims but that her soul and her song “magnify” the Lord. Our songs, like magnifying glasses, have power, to accentuate, to envision, to see more clearly, power to expand and make greater God’s purposes in our lives and across our world.

You may have realized I don’t usually engage in reactionary hysteria to current events, but maybe today as a summary and contrast we could see why that is by holding all of this against our own mini terror event in the shooting yesterday at East Towne. Where that isolates us and makes us flee, God’s song draws us together and unites us. Whereas we inherently sense that is wrong, God’s song comes naturally. Whereas that causes anxiety, God’s song leads to joy. Whereas that is about danger and chaos, God’s song is about life, about hope, about changing us and this frustrating, trembling, miserable world. That’s the center of our attention. That’s why we sing.

We’ll stop there. But having been speaking of songs, our Hymn of the Day is one of my favorite tunes in the hymnal, and this is the only Sunday in three years of lectionary Bible readings that the words really fit. Let’s sing!

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)

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Carol Stories, week 1

Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245, stanzas 1 & 2)

 

With this first one, there’s double trouble in claiming we’ll sing your favorite Christmas carols. A: it’s not in the Christmas section. B: it may not be a favorite. I picked it after reading a passage for staff devotions from this Advent Sourcebook. To start the book, it says, “for many, Advent would not be Advent if introduced by any other” carol. That says something about it being a favorite.

Yet I was surprised it wasn’t even in the Advent section of our old green LBW hymnals. There, in the “Christian Hope” section, it has a totally different translation that goes, “O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray.” I think the translation in ELW has more ring.

And speaking of translations, the Sourcebook said that the original Latin word we have as “stars” was actually way more. It also included “sun and moon and planets and all the constellations and comets and meteors, these mysterious heavenly bodies that in some unfathomable way could affect human destiny. The point was not just some lovely nightfall scene studded with gently glimmering stars.”

That huge perspective is helpful in, again, reorienting us as this season starts. We love these quiet nights, and reflecting that Jesus will be born as a baby, because we can wrap our minds (and our arms!) around that. A tiny infant we can handle. But at the same time, this God who created the entire immense universe really is unfathomably big. I started to look up a scale model, of the sort like “if the sun were the size of a basketball, earth would be a grain of sand” and that the nearest star would be hundreds of miles away, which is even more shocking when we remember that our galaxy alone has at least 100 billion stars and there are at least 100 billion more galaxies. Yowser. That quickly becomes more math than I can do. And it can make us and our troubles seem awfully small.

Yet the original version of our carol describes the Savior’s sorrow for a “curse / that should doom to death a universe” and so came to “embrace / our gloomy world, its weary race.” It’s a remarkable understanding, that out of everything—the hugeness of the cosmos, the complexity of existence, the vast stretches beyond comprehension—that God should care for us. It’s like words we’ll hear from Psalm 8 in a bit, “When I consider your universe, what are mere mortals that you should care for us?”

Yet that is exactly what we understand of God and the arrival of Jesus. And, in another (though smaller still) amazingly expansive stretch, Christians have been singing the words of this carol to these same notes since at least the 800s. So let’s join them. Let’s sing.

 

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295, stanzas 1 & 3)

 

Our second carol is more likely a favorite, at least for me and Brent Ruffridge.

Its sound may parallel the ancient chant plainsong we just sang; indeed, this is another old, old tune that’s been sung for hundreds of years, though it’s not as ancient as the words themselves. The words are by a man who has been called “the original Christian poet.” He was writing at about the same time that our Nicene Creed was composed, and we may sense some similarities between the two. Prudentius was a successful lawyer and judge in northern Spain, appointed to his position by the emperor. But he came to see life as too temporal or temporary, that what we work and strive for and build on all too soon collapses and disappears. So he gave up his position and wealth and moved to a monastery to write Christian poetry.

His words here also try to contain some of the enormous scope of the cosmos and all of history that we encountered in the last carol. Here it includes the term “Alpha and Omega,” again as we heard on Christ the King Sunday, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In a way, it reverses the idea that Jesus was a baby who would fit in our arms; this says that we are entirely in his embrace. So just as we’d say there is nothing before A and nothing after Z, within God’s reach and never outside God’s control is everything we know and have experienced and could ever be. The ancient prophets. The highest angels. The worst thing you’ve ever done. The Big Bang. Death. The things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see—Jesus is holding all of it and working to love and redeem it all. It sure does make our existence now seem temporary by comparison.

Speaking of knowing only in part, the version of this carol in our hymnals includes just five of ten original stanzas. In the full version, there are words about Jesus creating earth and heaven and depths of ocean and all that grows. There’s our frail and feeble bodies, doomed to die and departed souls. From Psalm 148, there’s the praise of elders, youth and maidens, and even infants, plus the praise of all creation—storm and sunshine, stream and forest, night and day. These are different words for what we have portrayed also in nativity scenes, that all come to worship the tiny, fragile, holy infant who is ruler of all times and places, from donkeys to angels, rich and wise kings down to poor ugly shepherds like goofy Gustav. For his sake and along with all creation, let’s sing.

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