Monday, December 21, 2015

Keep on Singing!

I have a lot of Christmas music on my home computer.  How much?  Well, enough for five days of non-stop playing; 1,750 songs!  Please don’t tell the Bishop, but I start to listen to Christmas music even before Thanksgiving.  A few weeks ago I was making a purchase and asked the cashier how she was doing.  “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” she said.  “What is the problem,” I asked, suspecting that the volumes of holiday shoppers in foul moods had worn her down.  “I can’t stand the Christmas music playing all the time in our store.  I hear the same songs over and over all day.”  I could offer her no words of comfort.

When an artist records a song already released by another artist it is referred to as a ‘cover.’  Here are the top five most-covered Christmas songs of all time:

#5  The First Noel – 12,476 covers

#4  The Christmas Song – 13, 208 covers

#3  Jingle Bells – 19,080 covers

#2  White Christmas – 20,721 covers

#1  Silent Night – 26,496 covers

Did you know that Jingle Bells has appeared in 373 movie soundtracks? 

Here are the five most requested Christmas songs this year:

#5  Fairytale of New York by The Pogues

#4  Mistletoe by Justin Bieber

#3  Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee

#2  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas by Michael Bublé

#1  All I want for Christmas is you by Mariah Carey.

According the play count feature on iTunes, my most-played holiday song is The Cowboys Christmas Ball by The Killers, which I have listened to a whopping 58 times.

One of the unique features to Luke’s gospel is its emphasis on music, or what has become music.  In today’s reading Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth.  Zechariah sings when his son John is born.  Angels sing to shepherds.  And finally, Simeon sings when he sees the infant Jesus in the Temple for the first time.  Scholars debate the origins of these ancient texts.  Did the original characters compose these hymns on the spot, or were they developed over time, and if so, by who?  In the interest of Christmas cheer, I’ll spare you the details of their discussions.  Still, it is worth noting that Matthew, Mark, and John either knew nothing of these songs or deemed them not significant enough to include in their gospels.  We are indebted to Luke for recording them.

More important than where they come from is what they mean and how they function.  This morning we hear the words of Mary’s Magnificat.  At its heart it is a song of praise and joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord!”  But it is also deeply rooted in another traditional aspect of music: it is an act of resistance.  Singing is a powerful way to protest when you do not have the power to change the way things are.

Are you familiar with the traditional call-and-response carol Mary had a baby? 

Mary had a baby (yes Lord)
  Mary had a baby (yes, my Lord)
Mary had a baby (yes Lord)
The people keep a-comin’ and the train done gone.

Sung by slaves, the reference to the train is an allusion to the Underground Railroad and by including it in the story of Jesus it served to inspire people to throw off the shackles of bondage and to hope for freedom and a better life. 

Think about the Von Trapp family singing Edelweiss as the Nazis are set to take over Austria.  That was an act of resistance to be sure.  The Civil Rights movement was fueled by songs like We shall overcome.  The Velvet Revolution, the non-violent transition of power in Czechoslovakia that was the precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall, began when a small group of people started to meet on Monday evenings at St. Nikolai Church to sing.  Over the course of a couple of months their numbers swelled to over 300,000 thousand people, more than half the country.  When the secret police were asked why they did not crush the movement, they replied they had no contingency plan for a song!

Mary too sings in this tradition:

God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

These are not words describing a historical reality at the time, but lyrics of protest and resistance.  In no uncertain terms, Mary proclaims that the world is not right and God is doing something about it.

We say Advent is a time for waiting, but with the waiting there is a strong element of protest and resistance.  Our Advent readings and hymns proclaim that something is wrong with this world.  This season highlights the darkness all around us while holding out hope for God’s Light. 

Much of the spirituality of Lent revolves around the realization there is something wrong with me.  It focuses on the changes I need to make in order to live God’s dream for me.  If we look inward during Lent, in Advent we look outward.  We look outward and we see the hatred which infects our world, the violence that plagues our society, the sin which is racism in our land, our lack of care for the lost, the least, and the lonely.  We see it and we sing about it.

O come, o come, Desire of nations,
bind in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Come thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Comfort, comfort ye my people,
  speak ye peace, thus saith our God.
comfort those who sit in darkness,
  mourning ‘neath the sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem,
  of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
  and her warfare now is over.

O Zion, that bringest good tidings,
  get thee up to the heights and sing!...
he stands in the midst of nations,
  and he will right the wrong.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,
the lambs he’ll gently hold,
to pastures of peace he’ll led them,
  and bring them safe to his fold.

He brings God’s rule, O Zion,
he comes from heaven above.
His rule is peace and freedom,
and justice, truth, and love.
Lift high your praise resounding,
for grace and joy abounding.
Oh, blest is Christ that came
in God’s most holy name.

Let the endless bliss begin,
  by weary saints foretold,
when right shall triumph over wrong,
  and truth shall be extolled.

Have I made my point?

Gracia Grindal, a Lutheran hymn writer, composed We light the Advent Candles as a way of explaining the meaning of this popular liturgical act.  The first line of her hymn says, “We light the Advent candles against the winter light.” Now, she could have written “We light the Advent candles because of the winter light” or “during the winter light” but by using “against” she proclaims this season to be a protest of the darkness around us.  We sing because we hope for something better.  We sing for change. We sing, because we cannot give up or give in.  We sing because we believe.  We sing for strength and for courage.  We sing because we know a new world is coming.  We sing!

So let’s retrace one last time our journey through this Advent season:

· On the first Sunday of Advent we said “Take Advent Slowly!”

· On the second Sunday we said, “Change Your Clothes!”

· Last week we said, “Your Life Matters!”

· How about we draw Advent to a close with this:  “Keep on Singing!”

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