And Hear the Angels Sing: Joy
I recently attended a concert of a 10-men a cappella group called, Straight No Chaser. I went at the suggestion of a friend, and while familiar with a cappella music, the short and funny informational video shown at the beginning of the concert was a great introduction for me. In it, the group explained that this kind of music is created using only the voices on stage; while we would hear sounds of bells and drums and other percussion, those sounds were being made…by voices. The group worked, the video explained, to create complex harmonies using their voices, sometimes five and six parts; sometimes as many as ten—each voice singing a different part, the whole sound an amazing creation of sophisticated harmony.
Today we’re in week three of Advent, and as we’ve been listening for the sounds of Advent, we should be realizing by now that the “sound” of Advent is very often not a sophisticated harmony. Sure, we hear and sing some of the most beautiful music of the entire year during these weeks. But we sing it to call forth hope, peace, joy, love: things for which we desperately long, in a world full of discordant notes and competing sounds.
Instead of soft, sweet harmonies, many times the reality of living assaults our ears: desperation competes with hope; broken relationships and conflict compete with peace; desperation, sorrow, grief compete with joy; hatred tries to drown out love. Our lives are often full of discordant sounds that make us want to cover our ears and run away.
In and among this reality of human life we come today to the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy, when we read the words of Luke’s gospel, a song attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. You may know it as The Magnificat, Mary’s treatise about the state of the world and her stubborn insistence that it doesn’t have to stay that way.
We have the writer of Luke’s gospel to thank for the words of the Magnificat. Mark and John skip the birth narrative altogether, and Mary appears in Matthew only as a silent character. Paul throws her a bone in his epistle writings when he recalls that God’s son was “born as a woman.” But curiously here, in Luke, Mary sings a song.
You’ll recall, as the story goes, an angel came to a young, unmarried woman and told her she would give birth to a baby. That all sounds so nice and sweet to our modern ears, given perhaps, as the NY Times reported last year that more than half of the women under 30 who gave birth in the US in 2012 were unmarried. That, however and as you know, was not the case back in Mary’s day. She was likely a young teenager in a culture oppressed by Roman rule and held together by strict social and cultural rules in which women were like property. A baby out of wedlock rendered a woman damaged goods; her life was ruined.
In this context, Luke’s writer has young Mary pregnant and traveling to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child. As the story goes, they greet each other in celebration and Mary sings these astonishing words: “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…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….”
You might recognize her words: they are very similar to another woman’s song in scripture, the song of Hannah in the first book of Samuel. Scholars will point out that there is no way for young Mary to have composed a song like Luke puts in her mouth—she would not have known an Aramaic translation of the book of Samuel. Still, the literary device Luke’s writer employs here is a powerful one: desperate young teenager, her life turned upside down, her body changing dramatically, her future devastated—powerless, hopeless, victim—makes these beautiful, subversive claims. She sings them in the past tense as if to say: “Even in the middle of all of this pain, I already know what God is up to. I defiantly claim joy—God has already redeemed even the darkest pain of my life. You feel sorry for me? Don’t, because God has scattered the proud, brought the powerful down from their thrones, filled the hungry with good things, and kept his promise. God has already done it. And God will do it again.”
Today on the Sunday of joy we note the desperation of Mary’s situation. Her life is scored with discordant notes of fear, desperation, uncertainty, devastation even. And still, she sings a song of liberation and freedom, of righting old, old wrongs, of bringing life and healing and hope into a situation—into a world—where these are not readily apparent.
This is joy. Speaking promise into pain. Not sugary, smiley, everything-is-just-great giddiness, but an assurance in the middle of the desperation, that this is not the final word for us.
In placing this song in Mary’s mouth, the writer of Luke is telling us that the coming of this baby will rock the easy conventions with which we structure our lives; he will challenge us to new things; he will shift the discordant notes of our lives into harmonies we once thought impossible.
These are not words to take lightly; they are defiant, subversive words whenever they are spoken. But sing them in the face of a culturally devastating pregnancy, a life ruined? Sing them in a world where voices calling for reconciliation and peace are muzzled by a jail cell for 27 years? Sing them today, with 33,473 deaths by gun violence in the United States in the 365 days since 20 innocent children died in an elementary school and we pretended to be outraged but still have done little of substance to address gun violence? Sing words like this into situations like these?
This is the radical act of Advent. Of joy.
As many of you know, I lived for a few years in Prague in the early 1990s, right after the Velvet Revolution when the country became the Czech Republic. Before it was called Czechoslovakia, and even in oppressive times had been one of the most vibrant cultural and musical centers of Europe, where many, many talented musicians, composers, conductors, and artists lived, worked, and created beauty.
During World War II the Nazis built a concentration camp called Terezin, outside the city of Prague. The camp was a way-station for prisoners from Prague and surrounding areas, to keep them until they could be shipped off to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Because of the cultural vibrancy of that area, many, many of the Jews who were imprisoned in Terezin were world-class musicians and composers; many of the rest were largely very accomplished amateur musicians. The prisoners at Terezin organized early on to create music and art in the face of the horrors they were experiencing. In their meager luggage allowances, many of them brought musical instruments and the music they created and performed there was astonishing.
In fact, the Nazis used this to create the illusion of happy, healthy prison camps when the Red Cross came to inspect.
Still, underneath there was desperation, hunger, sorrow, fear, pain, loss of dignity, death. And in the middle of all of it, the people sang.
Among the prisoners at Terezin was celebrated young conductor, Rafael Schächter. He decided to teach and perform Verdi’s Requiem—a beautiful musical setting of the Catholic funeral mass—with the community at Terezin. Armed with one score—one!—a variety of instruments, and a choir that was ever-changing in membership, the community at Terezin tirelessly rehearsed and performed the requiem more than fifteen times.
People wondered why a group of Jews would choose to create and perform liturgy of the Catholic church, a symbol of their oppression. Historians marvel at the determination of Schächter, who kept rehearsing and performing even after Nazi transports decimated his choir and orchestra over and over. It seems strange that the musicians would keep producing such beauty even as Nazi officers set up chairs and applauded their performances.
Those who were there—those who remember—call it the “Defiant Requiem.” In the face of desperation, injustice, hopelessness, death, they raised their batons and bows and voices and sang the ancient words: “deliver the souls of all the faithful dead from the pains of hell and from the deep pit; deliver them from the mouth of the lion; that hell may not swallow them, and that they may not fall into darkness…Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” Out of the desperation of the present, they sang a song of defiance. One survivor recalls, “You’ll never understand, or get close, to what music truly meant to each of us as a sustaining power….
And what about us?
Practicing joy in the face of sorrow and devastation seems ridiculous. It takes naming the horror and pain and brokenness in which we find ourselves and declaring that God has already fixed it; that there is a reality for which we long already in place, and that we will choose to live into that reality. That’s joy: the unwavering insistence that God has already done what we cannot manage to do on our own, and we will celebrate that. We will raise our voices and sing defiantly of the God who shows up in barren places and creates life out of death. We will not keep silent. We will sing with Mary, “For the Might One has done great things for me, and holy is his name!”
And so, this Advent, we listen. We listen for the songs of joy, speaking of a reality in which we must and will believe. We listen:
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!