Lessons and Carols
It has been a week of music making at Westwood, I’m learning that’s pretty typical around here. Last Sunday our Sunday school children filled the chancel area to sing Advent songs and give us a little glimpse into Christmas time. Then, last Sunday afternoon about fifty people left Westwood in different groups to go Christmas caroling. Young and old set out to sing to those who are not able to leave their homes and brought the sounds of Christmas to them. We caroled to people who recognized their church friends quickly, we also caroled to people who could not remember– each recipient of the caroling groups were at differing stages of memory loss and old age. It did not matter – because music has the power to transcend memory loss, our brains are wired in such a way that music stays with us longer than names and dates and even longer than the recognition of beloved faces. Music, in mysterious and powerful ways, cuts through disease and isolation and brings people of all ages together in the simple, bodily act of singing. So many that we visited last week moved their lips and even made some sound with words like "O come let us adore Him" or "Hark the herald angels sing", they were signs of the power of story, music and healing.
And this is the time of year to be brought together in song. The music making continued on Tuesday morning when all our children from the Westwood Early Childhood Center filled the commons for the “Come as Your Are” luncheon – a lunch to gather and honor our most elderly church members – our youngest family members were singing the songs of faith to our oldest family members (picture?). They sang the most simple songs of our faith, yet the words “He’s got the little bitty babies and the grandmas and the grandpas in his hands” seem to take on some other meaning when they are shared between such a span of generations.
I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but all week I’ve been pondering this strong connection between the story of Christmas and music – we cannot possibly separate them! Have you had the yearly argument with your loved ones as to when it is proper to turn on the Christmas music in the home and car? Could we really gather on Christmas Eve and not sing “Silent Night, Holy Night all is calm all is bright?”
In the bible, the Christmas story is carried through narrative and song: much like this service of lessons and carols has been shaped. This pattern of word and music, word and music is nothing new – the church has always been responding to the Word of God with song, especially at this time of year.
Could the compatibility of music and Christmas have something to do with the way in which God is acting in the story of Christ’s birth? Could it be that the Word became flesh, the Divine God becoming bodily and then dwelled among us as close as the voice which rises up from within us? The coming of the Christ child first entered the world, not in loud, majestic ways but in a woman’s womb – mysteriously taking up residence in a way that demands such intimacy, such feeling of the whole body. Not unlike music.
Of course Mary poured out in song after hearing what God was going to do in her life – it is so often how we make meaning, how we process, how we move through experiences or emotions which we cannot explained. Music takes our ordinary words and gives them lift and power and resonance, music follows the lead of God who takes the ordinary, like Mary and gives her life and power.
Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwan spent much of his life living in intimate communities, he says it this way…
God became flesh for us to show us that the way to come in touch with God’s love is the human way, in which the limited and partial affection that people can give offers access to the unlimited and complete love that God has poured into the human heart." -Henry Nouwen
Perhaps we cannot separate music and the Christmas story because we need music to help us enter into this story that is intimate and holy, calling us to God and mysteriously saving us at the same time. And this story, of the Holy One coming into our lives needs to take residence deep in our being, sung so far into our memories that this miracle, this presence of God will be the final reality we know while on earth.
There are countless ways to find your voice in the story, consider all these sounds of Christmas:
The song began with the prophet Isaiah: giving warning and hope to a nation in disarray, his melody is filled with longing and beauty (Cellos play“Lo, How a Rose")
Then Zachariah carries the story through his song that burst out from his own doubt: the dawn from on high will break upon us, he sings through a determined melody (Flute play "Joy to the world")
The angels and the whole hosts of heaven sing the promise that no human can fully understand, (brass section plays "Hark the Herald")
Mary, so plain and unassuming, sings her song of revolution and upheaval, with leaps of sound that portray the upheaval God’s kingdom will bring
(violins play "Canticle of the Turning")
The story of Christmas moves through all kinds of people, even the story of the shepherds give us a tone of searching and yearning (clarinets play "In the Bleak Midwinter")
The Wiseman, invite in the generous and confident (piano plays "We Three Kings")
And all creation that falls silent when the glory of the Lord shines from the star upon the place where he lay (silence)
Every voice has it’s place in the symphony of Christmas, for God’s story includes melody, harmony, counter point and ostinatos. Dynamics that carry us through every season of our life with this promise: the Word will dwell in your life, in intimate, soul-healing, world upturning ways.
May every song we sing bring us closer to God’s life among us. Amen.