See the child that Mary bore
On her lap so softly sleeping
In a stable cold and poor
Ox and ass their vigil keeping
Sing lullaby, sing lullaby
My own dear son, my child
Lullaby, sing lullaby
Lullaby, my little baby
Flights of angels ‘round His head
Sing Him joyful hymns of greeting
Peace on earth, goodwill to men
Each to each the song repeating
Shepherds kneeling by His bed
Offer homage without measure
Wise men, by a bright star led
Bring Him gifts of richest treasure
You may not know the name Yip Harburg, but surely everyone here knows this lyric he penned:
Somewhere over the rainbow
way up high,
there’s a land that I heard of
once in a lullaby.
Lullabies have been around for a long, long time. The earliest recorded lullaby is a Babylonia text over 4,000 years old. While its aim was to get a baby to sleep, its message was rather menacing. It chastised the baby for disturbing the household god with its crying and also contained a list of repercussions if silence did not follow. Many cultures have lullabies with dark overtones. The Luo people of western Kenya sing “Rock, rock, rock,” to their infants before starkly warning, “The baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena.” Think about our own western tradition of singing “Rock-a-bye-baby” where wind and crying result in a cradle falling from a tree branch!
Well, while some lullaby lyrics are more child-appropriate than others, Nina Perry, in a BBC article notes, “Wherever you go in the world, women use the same tones, the same sort of way of singing to their babies… Rhythmically, there are shared patterns… giving them a characteristic swinging or rocking motion.” All of this has a way of mimicking a baby’s experience in the mother’s womb.
Lullabies function in at least five different ways:
They build a bond between parent and child.
They pass down cultural knowledge and traditions.
They help to develop communication skills.
They regulate emotions and behavior.
They help a baby fall asleep.
One study of premature babies concluded gentle music helps to slow down the heart rate and improves feeding and sleeping. Another study determined a live voice is more beneficial than recorded music. Still another study found lullabies enhance an infant’s neurological development.
Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) observed “All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling. The music we hear early on tends to stay with us all our lives.” Would it surprise you to know that lullabies help hospice patients to transition from daylight to darkness?
Do you have a memory of someone singing you to sleep?
The beautiful anthem we heard moments ago highlights how the lullaby has figured prominently in the Christian spirituality surrounding this night. Angels praising, shepherds knelling, gift-bearing travelers from the east, all of this awe and wonder and still our attention is drawn to the most human of all experiences: a mother singing softly to her newborn.
At last Saturday’s beautiful handbell concert, Al Reese introduced Cathy Moklebust’s arrangement of Still, Still, Still, saying it evoked the image of “softly falling snow, quiet dreaming, and the great mystery of God made flesh”. You may remember he encouraged us to listen with our eyes closed, which I did and, true to his words, I was caught up in softly falling snow, quiet dreaming, and the great mystery of God made flesh.
As I listen to Mary’s Lullaby I hold it next to my faith that all things have been created through God’s Son. The incredible power that launched the Big Bang, the Vision who dreamed up the quark, the One who is All and beyond All and largely incomprehensible to our human mind became flesh. God needed to be held and succored and sung to in order that the heart rate might slow, digestion might improve, neurological pathways might develop, communication skills be learned, and cultural traditions assimilated. Is there any better way to describe this than “the great mystery of God made flesh”?
I wonder how many of us have oriented our religious selves around coming to God. We come before God with our petitions in prayer, our confessions, our praises, and our thanksgivings. We come to God. This is how we do religion. But tonight suggests there might be something we are overlooking: God comes to us. God comes to us through the unexpected visit of a friend. What does a lullaby to our God sound like in this moment? God comes to us through a soft and serene majestic sunrise. What does our lullaby to God sound like in this moment? God comes to us in the person who desires a new beginning in life, perhaps by attending tonight’s service. What does our lullaby to God sound like in this moment?
The great mystery of God made flesh reminds me of my need to be gentle and tender and soothing and nurturing in this life. So much of what God is seeking to do in our world begins as something vulnerable, as something in need of care, of compassion, of a lullaby.
Earl Wynne was one of those solid, salt-of-the-earth good guys I have been blessed to know in my ministry. He stood at the front door of the church, greeted every person by name, and escorted the women on his arm to their pew all the while shushing the choir and clergy out of the way, saying “make room for the paying customers!” His association with the parish began in the 1950’s when he and his young bride first attended a service on a hot, humid Richmond Sunday in July. Because the church was not air-conditioned the usher encouraged him to remove his jacket so he would be more comfortable. That simple act of gracious hospitality convinced Earl not only to join the church, but to carry out a decades-long ministry of greeting people. Earl would never say the usher sang a lullaby to him, but tonight that is what I would call it. Earl and his wife, Juliet, were in a vulnerable place looking to begin something new in their lives. The church received them with the gentleness and care of a lullaby.
When was the last time you realized God came to you? How did you respond? What did you do? Do you think there are times God comes to you, but you fail to recognize it? If so, what might you do to be more attentive? When, where, and how do you sing a lullaby to the vulnerable new thing God is doing? And what about you? What vulnerable new thing might God be seeking to do in your life? What does your lullaby to it sound like?