A Promise That Changes the World

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Over the past several days I’ve experienced, as you probably have, a range of emotions in response to the mass killing of twenty first-graders and six of their teachers and staff in Connecticut. From horror to outrage, and from grief to incredible sadness, I’ve struggled along with the rest of us to absorb this tragedy. I’ve also, at times, fallen strangly mute. A friend who hadn’t heard the news asked about it and I could hardly get out the words, and when my kids asked me to explain what happened (they are 12 and 15), I had to speak in short sentences, I found it all so upsetting.

To be honest, I hadn’t expected this last response. Usually, talking is the way I process things. Thoughts, feelings, events, memories, you name it, I’m a talker. Not a bad attribute when you’re a preacher, I suppose, but I’ve found this loss of speech a little unnerving. And so I’ve turned to the words of others. In a short piece I wrote on my blog yesterday, I mentioned how powerful I found one of the verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: 

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

It’s the verse based on Isaiah’s promise that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” (9:1), and it’s the “O Antiphon” appointed, appropriately enough, for December 21st, the winter solstice and darkest day of year.

And then we sang it in church today. Except for me it was more like a hoarse whisper than singing, and I’m not sure I could have managed even that except for the great sermon that preceded it about God’s promises and the importance of song. But even though it was hard, it helped. As the verses went on I found my voice, along with those around me, growing stronger. And that has stayed with me: the power of songs to help and heal us.

All of which brings me to this week’s gospel reading, in which we are treated to another of the fabulous songs with which Luke adorns his story of the nativity and one of the most famous songs in the Bible: Mary’s Magnificat.

I used to wonder why Luke employed so many songs – Zechariah’s, Simeon’s, the heavenly host’s (despite what the Pope says, I still think it’s a song :)), and Mary’s. But over time I’ve learned, in part from Luke and in part from experiences like I had this past Sunday, that songs are powerful. Laments express our grief and fear so as to honor these deep and difficult emotions and simultaneously strip them of their power to incapacitate us. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices. And canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.

Songs are powerful. But at times also difficult, and the violence of the last days has robbed many of us of our voice. But it will not always be so. We will catch our breath, hold onto each other, remember that we are not alone, and lift our voices once again in lament and praise, promise and defiance. That began to happen for me, and I suspect many others, today.

Given this, I think we have a unique opportunity this Sunday not only to talk about Mary’s song, or even to sing it, but also to enter into the promises to which it gives voice. Mary sings of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, not just of her day, but of our own as well. So as we take up her song, we call upon God to remember those families whose children did not come home from school on Friday, those families who already wrapped Christmas presents that will never be opened, those families who will struggle not just this holiday but for many to come. And we beseech God on behalf of all those who mourn, or are lonely, or do not have enough food, or live in places of strife and war, or who struggle with mental illness or care for them, and so many more.

According to Luke, when Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but also entered into them. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary’s song are all in the past tense. Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case doesn’t so much signify that everything Mary sings about has been accomplished, but rather that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.

So also, I believe, with us. When we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” for instance, we are drawn into the story of Israel’s redemption and not only long for but also participate in God’s promise to bring light and cheer and to dispel death and darkness. Similarly, when we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” whether this Sunday or Monday night, we can feel the hopes and fears of all the years met in the vulnerable babe of Bethlehem. Singing “Joy to the World” – sometimes called a Christmas song; at others placed among the Advent carols – can create in us the very joy we have longed for of late and maybe wondered whether we’d experience again. And when we give our voices over to “The Canticle of the Turning,” Rory Cooney’s fabulous adaptation of Mary’s song, we sense that, indeed, the world has begun to turn and feel ourselves invited into that turning.

Singing, you see, doesn’t just help us to name things, it draws us into the actual experience and reality we voice. God has promised to change the world, and in singing these promises we enter into that work.

So perhaps this Sunday, Working Preacher, would be an important time to limit our spoken words to make room for our sung ones. Maybe it’s enough to explore just briefly Mary’s song for all the lowly, to touch on the difficult emotions we’ve experienced over the last week, to point out how the songs of this season include those emotions, and also how they move us beyond them. Until all of sudden, amid our singing, we gather together not just as a collection of individual Christians but as a company, a company of saints that stretches from Mary and Elizabeth down through the ages to all of us who are gathered together, once again raising our voices in hope and expectation, waiting once more for the presence and comfort of the Lord.

Our voices may start out as a hoarse whisper, dear Working Preacher, but as we sing they’ll gain strength, and together we will enter into the reality of faith, courage, and love that we sing as we witness and participate in God’s promise to change the world.

Thanks for listening, Working Preacher, and even more for lending your voice to this song, God’s song of life and love, hope and justice, needed more than ever in these dark and difficult times.

Yours in Christ,