Music has always been the heart of the Church and our worship of the Mighty one. In the desert wilderness, the wandering Israelites sang prayers and hymns to a God whom they followed as a pillar of cloud by day, and as a raging fire by night. In the land of Canaan, the people of Israel composed psalms to express their love, their praise, their grief, and their struggles to a God who had made covenant with his people. On the way to Babylon, the exiles dried their tears with songs from home, prayers to the One who created.
And so it should not surprise us that when the Holy Spirit came to Mary, she cried out to God in song, proclaiming thanks that God’s revolution was near, offering thanksgiving to the one who shined in the darkness and could not be overcome. At Christ’s birth, angels sang alelluias, and shepherds whispered songs of wonderment to the baby lying in the manger. The magi marched ever closer to the star, drawn by strange and exotic rhythms to the cave where Jesus laid his head.
And this is only the beginning of a story that spans a lifetime—I imagine that Jesus would in turn be formed by the songs of his people: the melodic prayers of a people who see God in every part of their lives, whether it be rejoicing, or sorrow. The familiar words would comfort him in his grief, comfort the disciples and followers of Christ who stood in the shadow of the cross and who waited for the Holy Spirit to be with them.
We are the bearers of this tradition, of singing our faith to God and to one another. Our ancestors, the saints of the church, have passed on their faith to us through the songs they sing—O Come O Come Emmanuel, Amazing Grace, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World. And each and every psalm is a window into faith of those who have sat in these pews before us, who have waited in the darkness of Advent for a light to shine, hoping and praying and singing for a Savior who would come to redeem them. They, like us, hear the psalmist’s cry: “ Sing to the Lord a new Song, tell of his salvation from day to day.” They cower with the shepherds in the fields as the angels as their praise to God sets the sky afire.
I believe that these hymns are at the center of our worship, especially during this season, for they are a reminder for us of why we bother gathering at all—we gather because the one we worship, whom we call God-with-us, Light of Light, Rod of Jesse and Dayspring from on High, is more than just a baby in manger, he is also our King and Savior. This tiny, vulnerable child, born out of poverty and scandal to unwed parents, brought into the world in a dirty stable and laid in a trough, attended by shepherds and worshiped by foreigners, wise men from distant lands, will, through his life and his death, teach us what it means to be light to the world. To those most forgotten and forlorn, he will open his arms wide in an embrace to remind us that God’s love is beyond anything we can comprehend. And to those who are already embraced by the world, to the comfortable and the happy, he will issue a challenge—follow me, empty yourself, create a space where God can dwell, learn to love as God first loved us—welcome everyone, sick, hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, resisting the very human impulse to be content with what is rather than the Kingdom of God that should be, even unto death.
Perhaps this is why, during this season of Advent, I have found myself again and again drawn to the words of a hymn that speaks not of the manger, and mentions no shepherd and angels, or even a star in the sky. Instead, I have found myself more often than not, drawn to the words of an Easter hymn, for I am reminded during this Christmas season that the joy of the manger means nothing without the cross. That the star in the sky points us to more than a holy family—it shines a light on the one who will be light for all people. And this is why, this Christmas, I find myself singing with the saints:
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb,
Who is the great I AM,
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
May it be, that during this season of Christmas, we are with the million who sing, drawn deeper into the mystery and the joy of the One who comes to redeem us all. Alleluia, Amen.