When did you start hearing Christmas songs this year? Stores and radio stations seems to start earlier and earlier every year. Maybe it was the Twelve Days of Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas right after Halloween. Was it Sleigh Ride in Sudbury Farms or Winter Wonderland in Whole Foods?
How did you react when you first starting hearing the songs this year? Honestly? Was it with joy for the coming season? Or were you upset that the songs had started so soon? Does this season bring warm fuzzy feelings or does it cause tension because of long lists of items to buy and things to do?
Over the past almost ten years, it’s become a running joke that I don’t allow us to sing Christmas songs during Advent. This is one of the times of year that I’m a bit of a liturgical snob. I want Advent to be a time of anticipation – for me as much as for you. As we’ve followed the Narrative lectionary this year, we’ve read stories from the Hebrew Bible but we’ve stayed away from the New Testament. I don’t know about you but that creates some tension for me – I’m craving stories about Jesus. I love the stories of Jesus’ ancestors of faith but I’m so ready to look at the good news of the One that I choose to follow.
Advent, for me, is the pinnacle of that waiting – we’re so close to Jesus yet still so far away.
So, I … urge us to stay away from singing Christmas songs in church before the “right” time.
Songs can be powerful. They can speak to our deepest emotions, helping us to name fears and doubts that we didn’t even know we were feeling.
Songs can give us hope, singing about the world as we wish it would be.
Songs can give us strength and courage to take action.
Throughout Luke’s gospel, there are four ancient songs. We’ve heard the song of Mary with the children (along with two musical version: our first hymn and the Canticle of the Turning). We just hear the song of Zechariah. The other two, which we’ll touch on later are the Gloria sung by the angels when the birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds and the song of Simeon, a prophet who encounters Jesus as the infant is presented in the Temple.
Each of these songs point to Jesus’ birth but – maybe more importantly – each reminds the singer and the audience that they have been accepted by God and that they are connected with all of God’s children. The songs tell us that our world has meaning and that our lives have a purpose.
The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon remind us that God calls to and accepts us. Us specifically. Each one of us: whether on the brink of parenthood for the first time or facing retirement, a well-known leader or a forgotten laborer.
The Magnificat is sung by Mary as she hears the call to carry the savior of the world in her womb. The gospel implies that Mary answers the angel right away: the angel’s like “hey, you’re going to be pregnant by the Spirt” and Mary’s like “k.” But I like to think there’s more of a story in between the lines. I think Mary took some time to discern, to weigh the magnitude of what the angel had say before she replied “Here I am.”
Mary’s visit by the angel comes after a similar visit by Zechariah. The angel appeared to Zechariah telling him that his son will be a prophet of God to prepare the people to make way for the Lord. In contrast to the young girl who would later respond “Here I am,” the old man dares to question this lofty call and his voice is taken away as a consequence only to be restored when he’s seen the proof of God’s promise.
After the birth of Jesus the angels bring their songs to the lowly shepherds in the field. The message of the Messiah comes not to the rich and the powerful but instead to those on the edges of society.
Weeks after Jesus is born, his parents present him at the Temple. There they meet two elderly prophets – Simeon and Anna – who had served God throughout their lives. Simeon recalls a promise that he will not die before he sees the Messiah.
The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon remind us that God calls us to be connected – as God’s people and with all of God’s creation. This connection is illustrated in visits by divine messengers to young women and old men and forgotten laborers and in the ways that the recipients respond “you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.” “Such is the tender mercy of our God, who from on high will bring the Rising Sun to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death”
The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon help the listeners to find meaning in this world. God intended for this world to be a world of peace, love, and justice – the proud will be scattered, the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up. Where all are saved from separation from God and each other. Peace on Earth and goodwill toward all. These songs echo the generations of prophets who called for swords to be beaten into plows, for an end to war and poverty and inequality that leads to some prospering while many suffer.
The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon remind us that God gives us each a purpose; that we are co-creators in bringing the Divine vision to life. We are called to “serve the Holy One without fear, in holiness and justice, in the God’s presence all our days.”
It’s a daunting call and we may not feel up to it. But these songs remind us that we are exactly the kind of people that God calls. Whether on the brink of parenthood for the first time or facing retirement, a well-known leader or a forgotten laborer on the edges of society. Whether we struggle with doubt in God, doubt in ourselves, doubt that the world can change.
The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon remind us that God is here. That God has always been with us. And that the world that God promises is possible.
So, yes. I’ll probably keep up my practice of “suggesting” that we avoid Christmas songs during Advent. Because look at all of these other songs that we might miss. Yes, Jesus was born. Yes, Christ is coming. Yes, it’s so much fun to celebrate the season.
As you’re listening to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Baby, remember the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon.
The songs of Advent remind us that there’s still work to be done. The songs remind us that we are accepted and connected, that we have meaning and purpose. These songs remind us that the voice of God is calling – to us.