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Luke 1.46-55, 2.14, 28-32

Songs of the Season

Fourth Sunday of Advent

On Christmas Eve 1818, the organ at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, broke down.  Nightmare scenario, right?  The organ breaks down on Christmas Eve; the entire service was constructed around the organ at that little church that night; in fact, it was the church’s very first Christmas Eve!  We learn what happened next from a description written by the organist himself: 

Joseph Mohr, then the assistant pastor of the newly established church, handed to Franz Gruber, who was attending to the duties of organist, a poem, with the request that he rewrite it for a suitable melody arranged for two solo voices, chorus and guitar accompaniment.  On that same evening, the organist, in the fulfillment of this request made to him, handed to the pastor his simple composition, which was thereupon immediately performed on that holy night of Christmas Eve, and received with acclaim.

Can anyone guess what song that was, born out of a moment of musical crisis?  That’s right, probably one of the best-loved of all the Christmas hymns, “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

The hymns and carols of Christmas bring a very special touch to the seasons of Advent and Christmas.  They bring us back to memories of Christmases past, they are probably the church hymns that churched and unchurched alike know best, and I know I’m not the only one for whom the songs of the season bring a smile to our hearts and a little spring to our step.  I have two audio channels I listen to when I bike, one has been playing more classical Christmas music the other the more popular, and they both help speed the miles away.  Some of the hymns we sing go back centuries.  The words to Karli’s Benediction response this morning, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” were written in the fourth century, and the music is sa plainsong that goes back to the 1200s.  But it wasn’t until that 13th century that the practice of singing carols at Christmas really caught hold.  In fact, the first official sanction to sing carols at Christmas worship was given by the Pope to none other than St Francis of Assisi in 1223.  And even then the practice was tentative.  In earlier days folks were concerned that the celebration of Jesus’ birth in song came dangerously close to the songs of the heathen at their own pagan festivals.  So strong was this sentiment, especially among those persnickety Puritans in England, in 1645 Christmas itself was abolished by the Parliament, along with all other religious festival days, and during the twelve years the ban remained in effect, much existing Christmas music withered and disappeared forever.  One of the very few survivors from that period is “The First Nowell.”  Indeed there are not many that date before the mid-seventeenth century.  But there can be no doubt that in our own day, they thrive like never before.

Singing seems almost to come naturally at this time of year.  Although, and this may just be me, I think one of the songs we should sing that we don’t, just to remind ourselves what we’re celebrating, is “Happy Birthday,” right?  But singing has always been part of the church’s celebration, no matter what it is we’re celebrating.  The Bible tells us that immediately following the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn together.  We’ve mentioned on many occasions that the psalms were regularly sung as part of the temple’s worship.  The prophet Zechariah wrote, “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for lo, I will come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord.”  And what is Christmas, but God coming to dwell in the midst of us as one of us?

The hymns and carols of Christmas, I think, fulfill a certain need within us, the need to find ways of singing God’s praises with thankful hearts.  When Edmund Sears began to worry that his sermon for Christmas Eve might not be sufficient to bring those praises out of his parishioners’ hearts, he at least knew that his carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” would more than make up for any deficiencies in his preaching.  And no, I am not composing any carols for Christmas Eve.  Phillips Brooks, one of the great American preachers of the 19th century, was so inspired by a trip he made to the Holy Land in 1865 that he wrote “O little Town of Bethlehem” on his return to his native Philadelphia.  Of course, on the other side of the ledger, we read in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol how Ebeneezer Scrooge was busy in his counting house one Christmas Eve when a half-starved youth came to regale him with a Christmas carol.  “At the first sound of God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” Dickens wrote, “Scrooge wielded his ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror.”  Christmas carols certainly have different effect on different people.

Two and a half days ago, when I learned I would be preaching this Sunday instead of listening to our wonderful choir singing the cantata they have been preparing through the fall, the first place both my mind and my heart went is to the biblical songs of the nativity.  And those of you with long memories will remember that I preached a sermon series on them two years ago.  The first is the Song of old Zechariah, who sang of God’s blessings when his equally aged wife Elizabeth, cousin to Mary, gave birth to John.  The song is known as the Benedictus, from the word ‘blessing.’  Barbara Jan read the song of Mary this morning, often called the Magnificat, from the word ‘magnify:’   “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sang, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  Shortly after Jesus’ birth, when the infant savior was brought to the temple for a service of dedication, an old man named Simeon happened to be there for worship, and it had been told to him that he would live long enough to see the messiah.  When Jesus was presented, Simeon recognized him and sang out in praise, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

The fourth of the nativity hymns is the briefest but also the most memorable, the Gloria in Excelsis:  “Glory to God in highest heaven,” the angel chorus sang, “and on earth peace among those favored of God.”  This preponderance of song told through the birth of Jesus is a clear statement that when God bends low to humanity, our reflexive response is to sing.  Praise and glory move us to music.

To welcome the coming of Jesus, to receive the presence of Christ, in all times and especially so this time of year, we sing out with gladness and with joy.  This is one of the reasons it stung so much to have to postpone this morning’s planned cantata.  Our United Church of Chester is profoundly blessed with wonderful music, with gifted singers and a superlative music director.  I’ll admit, when the choir began rehearsing the cantata earlier this fall, I began to hold my breath, at least figuratively, knowing that at any moment the virus could reassert itself with a vengeance. And so it has, and so we wait.  And so we wait.  But then again, what is Advent about, if not about waiting?  Awaiting a messiah, awaiting redemption, awaiting glory, and in this season, awaiting the time when the choir can safely sing once again.  Still, as much as we thrill to music and carols, God fills you and me with joy and gladness in so many different ways.  I know that a lot of us were thrilled to hunt for just the right gift for a child or adult when we  picked a tag from our giving tree.  Who hasn’t been touched with wonder and appreciation at the stars sprinkled all over town like so many snowflakes? And I’m looking very forward to singing and celebrating with what I like to regard as our extended church family this Friday evening.  Music isn’t the only bringer of joy, but for me, it certainly enhances everything else that does!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” for his son, who had been seriously wounded in the Civil War.  Although it strikes a melancholy chord, it was meant to bring to his son’s remembrance memories of a better time and place, and hope for a more promising future.  We’re going to hear the entire poem Christmas Eve, but I have always been taken by the final stanza:  “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:  God is not dead nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”  In many ways this is also what Christmas music does for us, it reminds us of God’s coming to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born into humble beginnings.  Yet the gospel does not end here; it is also a promise of the future, that the child in the manger will grow to bring the word of God into our lives, a word of hope, a word of promise, a word of gladness.  When a Christmas carol does this for us, it has done it duty.  The history of God’s salvation is our past, present and future all rolled into one:  if you ask me, this is definitely something to sing about.





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