Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Angels' Song

If you know me at all you know I am a big fan of Christmas music.  According to the iTunes file on my home computer, I have 2,086 Christmas songs and it would take four days and seven hours to listen to all of it.  Care to guess the Christmas song of which I have the most different versions?
·    God rest ye merry gentlemen – 27
·    Have yourself a merry little Christmas – 31
·    Jingle Bells – 32
·    Silent Night – 57
You may be interested to know carols have been around for thousands of years.  The first are sung at pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice.  Early Christians begin to supplant this ancient tradition with one of their own.  By the year 129 A.D. a bishop directs a song called Angel’s Hymn is to be at a Christmas service in Rome.  This new tradition continues to grow and expand over the centuries, but by the Middle Ages people lose interest in Christmas altogether.  St. Francis creates a revival in celebrating Christmas in 1223 when he begins to stage Nativity Plays throughout Italy.  These productions include songs and canticles and with this Christmas carols begins to spread throughout Europe once again.  Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan regime put an official stop to caroling in England for a brief period of time, but even then the faithful meet in secrete to sing.  The Victorian era sees a resurgence of caroling which has grown and expanded undiminished to our own time.
Singing, it seems to me, is the language of Christmas.  Dr. Seuss knows this because after the Grinch steals all the presents and holiday trappings from Whoville, his heart melts when he hears the undeterred joyfully residents signing carols.   The tradition of singing at Christmas dates all the way back to the chorus of heavenly hosts on the holy night of our Lord’s birth.  I wonder what it sounded like.  And I wonder why only a few shepherds hear it.  Surly the radiant throng singing praise to God has some heft to its volume.  So why do only a few people hear it?  Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister of the 19th Century, might suggest this as an answer: only the shepherds hear because they are the only one’s listening.  Everyone else is asleep or distracted. 
Edmund Sears is thought to be the author of the first Christmas Carol written in America.  Titled The Angel’s Song, it first appeared in print on December 29, 1849.  We now refer to it by its first line, “It came upon a midnight clear.”  At the time he writes it, Sears is troubled by the outbreak of war in Europe while America is still recovering from its own costly conflict with Mexico.   
It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold!
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.
We understand Sear’s longing for peace on earth and good will among all people.  It is timeless, as deeply desired today as it was 168 years ago.
In his carol, Sears contends angels continue to sing in our own day, but we are not listening:  
Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains
they bend on hovering wing.
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.
At every celebration of the Eucharist, we join our voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven who forever are singing a hymn of praise to God, so I think Sears is on to something.  Ever hovering over our world, the heavenly host continues to sing the message of Christ’s birth – peace on earth and good will.  It is a song too few hear because too few listen for it.  
Regrettably, the fourth verse of the carol is omitted from our hymnal.  It speaks directly to each person who is burdened and worn out by life; to every person on the verge of giving up and giving in:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
I think one the reasons I love Christmas music is because, as Sears suggests, it has a power to rejuvenate, to remind us of our better angels, and to rekindle a hopeful, heaven-born dream for our time.  It is why we love so dearly to come to this place on this night and sing. 

Sears concludes his carol with a conviction one day the angels’ song will be heard and sung by everyone.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet bards foretold,
when, with the ever-circling years,
shall come the Age of Gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and all the world give back the song
which now the angels sing.
Tonight I invite you to listen for the angels’ song, to let its message fill you with joy while instilling in you abiding hope for the day to come.  I invite you to welcome God’s peace into your life and encourage you to extend good will whenever and wherever possible.  I invite you to listen to the angels in the pews around you as we sing.  And I invite you to sing yourself. 

Let me leave you with a verse by Mildred L. Jarrell:
Let us have music for Christmas…
sound the trumpet of joy and rebirth;
let each of us try, with a song in our hearts,
to bring peace to all on earth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mary - the First Disicple

We shift our focus to Mary on this Fourth and final Sunday of Advent.  You may not have noticed, but other than in the Gospel of Luke Mary is scarcely mentioned.  In Mark, her most significant moment is when she assumes Jesus has lost his mind and attempts to take home.  Matthew records she goes to the empty tomb.  Although Mary appears at various points, John never mentions her by name and Paul never mentions her at all.

Only Luke gives us insight into Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  More than exalting her as the theotokos – the God-bearer – and more than presenting her as an ideal model of motherhood and womanhood, Luke presents Mary as the model for Christian discipleship.  Her response to Gabriel’s startling and surely demanding announcement is “Let it be to me according your word”.  Hers is a humble and obedient acceptance of God’s will. 

Gabriel’s proclamation Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High, will be given the throne of David, and will reign over a kingdom having no end, fits into the pattern of older biblical stories where the birth of an important figure is foretold.  We see it with the births of Ishmael and Isaac in the Book of Genesis as well as the birth of Samson in the Book of Judges.  Similarities between these stories and the one we read today suggest the focus of this passage should be on the child who is to be born.

But many scholars also note Luke’s story follows the form of an Old Testament “call” narrative, where a specific individual is approached by a heavenly being and commissioned for a specific task.  These accounts have a particular pattern and typically contain the following elements:

· a greeting

· a startled reaction

· an exhortation not to fear

· a divine commission

· an objection

· a reassurance

· the offer of a confirming sign

Mary’s response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”, echoes the words of the Samuel when he accepts his commission to be a prophet.  For Luke, Mary is blessed not because she will give birth to God’s child, but because she believes God’s word and accepts God’s will – the hallmark of discipleship.

Jesus will point to this several times during his public ministry.  In Luke 8:21, Jesus teaches, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  In Luke 11:28-29, a person in the crowd shouts out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.”  In a culture where the worth of a mother is determined by the importance of her male children, the comment suggests Mary’s value rests on the greatness of her son.  Jesus’ response, like most of his teaching, is counter-cultural, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”  Jesus believes his mother is blessed because she is a faithful disciple.

Perhaps you are getting the idea Luke presents Mary as a person for us to emulate.  Each one of us has received a call and commission through baptism into the Christian faith and life.  Some of us have had this call fine-tuned and focused.  All of us try to live out our faith through the work we do and the relationships we foster.  As Mary will find, at times discipleship is difficult and demanding.  Still, our response of “let it be to me according to God’s word” is the only path to a life made rich with God’s blessing.

Greg Manalli, a former insurance agent and the founder of the Fellowship of Life Church in England, says, “The dullness that overshadows a passive person is increased by the mounting number of times one doesn’t respond to the promptings of God.”  In other words, if you put your life on cruise control most likely you will end up restless and bored out of your mind.  But if you accept God’s call to follow, to obey, and to act, you are in for a thrill ride beyond imagining.  The Presbyterian minister John Ortberg says, “The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort.  This means that to be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life.” 

We see both of these truths at work in Mary.  Her life becomes rich, full, and at times downright uncomfortable.  Through her acceptance of God’s word, she becomes the first disciple of the Christian era.  And she continues to inspire and inform disciples today.