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Advent 4 December 24, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for December 24, 2017 | Advent IV
The Magnificat
A few years ago, my sister and I were drawn into a small altercation at a Mariners’ game in Seattle. With everyone else in the stands we stood for the national anthem and then began to sing along with the “professional” singer, a young soprano who confused loudness for beauty – a common practice in much American singing. We had sung only a few bars when the man standing in front of us turned around and told us -- not politely but angrily, not calmly but heatedly -- to shut up, to shut up so that he could listen to the singer as she continued, in our hearing, to strangle the anthem.
Little did he know that the Torvend children had been singing in church and school choirs since age five. Little did he know that our parents had taught us that singing is the most egalitarian and democratic of art forms. Little did he know that our church choirmaster had informed us repeatedly that no one – no singer, no choir, no cantor – should ever replace the voice of the people in song. After all, she said, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and thus freedom of song – a novel interpretation of the Constitution.
And so, having been told to shut up, we – in a most passive-aggressive manner – sang even louder of “bombs bursting in air,” as he continued to yell at us until the anthem came to a close.
You can only imagine how we relished the prospect of singing at the 7th inning stretch.
It is the fourth Sunday of Advent and by sunset this evening we -- and all Christians throughout the world, all 2.2 billion of us –- will have entered the season of Christmas. If there is any thing visitors can expect in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it will be the singing of carols, many of them touched by a strain of nostalgia, of looking back on a special event from the past, a form of musical time travel to the ancient holy land. But is that so? Is that what our singing here and throughout the world will amount to: Simply remembering a birth 2000 year ago?
I wonder, then, why the leaders of southern states and some members of the FBI were so concerned to limit or stop African Americans from singing in public at Christmas and then again at Easter – to stop the singing of people engaged in the struggle for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s?
Did southern governors and Mr. Hoover become alarmed by the power of singing that drew people together and gave them courage in the presence of demeaning and life-threatening opposition? After all, black church choirs did not reserve their song for Sunday worship (as did their white counterparts) but sang publicly, outdoors, leading protesters in the singing of those most subversive and hope inspiring of songs, the spirituals that directed singers and listeners to live into the kingdom of God, a kingdom, a way of living marked by the God-given dignity and equality of all human beings?
Or this: why would the allegedly Christian yet racist government of South Africa prohibit the public singing of Advent hymns during public prayer services in black and mixed-race townships, services led by Anglican priests, bishops, lay leaders, and choirs? Was it possible, just possible, that hymns which spoke of the advent, the coming of the son of justice and the prince of peace were viewed as a threat to a government that was anything but just and peaceful? I mean, can you imagine police using whips and tear-gas grenades to break up outdoor candlelight processions as the people sang “O come, O King of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind. Bid all our sad divisions cease and be yourself our King of Peace”?
Or this: what are to make of the thousands of people who gathered nightly around the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1989, to protest the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the secret police, the Staasi – thousands of people singing throughout the night in candlelit prayer, singing the words of the 16th c. Advent hymn, of “waking and rising from gloom for Zion’s Lord comes down all-glorious, strong in grace, in truth victorious,” a singing so strong that it drew 300,000 people – 300,000 people! – every night over a three month period. When, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a member of the secret police was asked why they had not crushed the singing crowds, he said: “Wir hatten keinen Notfallplan für Singen.” “We had no contingency plan for people singing. We. Had. No. Idea. What. To. Do.”
But should any of this – any of this in Germany, South Africa, and Alabama – come as a surprise to us? For did we not just hear the words of the canticle appointed for this day, Mary’s song of thanksgiving, Mary’s song of social reordering, in which a peasant girl announces that “God our Savior scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts … brings down the powerful from their thrones … lifts up the lowly … fills the hungry with good things … sends the rich away empty … and helps his servants in remembrance of his mercy.” Good heavens, there’s nothing nostalgic or sugar-coated in her song, for, indeed, she is singing of what God continues to do among us today – if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and the will – the will – to join in God’s holy work of offering mercy for the vulnerable, resisting the forces of discrimination, pursuing peace in the midst of conflict, and filling the hungry with good things.
This December marks the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As the leaders of the National Rifle Association attended a lavish White House holiday party – with the anniversary of the mass shooting never mentioned by the president – the families, colleagues, and friends of the victims gathered to mark the tragic event. At the liturgy of remembrance sponsored by one church, the assembly sang these words from an ancient hymn that seemed freshly composed for the gathering, a hymn freshly composed for anyone who has lost a loved one to death: “O Come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Is it possible, dear friends, that singing of light in the midst of darkness, that singing of dignity in the midst of injustice, that singing of peace in the midst of clear and present danger may be for us not only an act of resistance to all that dehumanizes God’s creatures but also, and most importantly, an act of hope in Emmanuel, in God’s troubling yet loving presence among us?
Fr. Samuel Torvend
Associate Priest for Adult Formation