In the Living Compass publication, Living Well through Advent, Scott Stoner talks about the music of Christmas. He says that “music is a thin place for many, where the distance between themselves and God is narrowed. It has long been said that music is the language of the soul and that those who sing, pray twice.”
Every Sunday, at the Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharistic Prayer, we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might.” We join our voices with angels, archangels, and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of God’s name.”
That music brings us directly into the presence of God and all the company of heaven as we prepare to come to God’s table and share the bread and wine together. Those who have gone before us surround us in this thin place at the table every Sunday. Music helps us to know that they are there with us, the company of heaven, and once more, the circle of love is unbroken, even by death.
Music also marks time. As Jan says, “It isn’t Christmas until I’ve sung ‘Joy to the World.’” That’s why, in the Episcopal Church, we have what some would consider that rather odd custom of not singing Christmas carols until Christmas! We mark the season of waiting with our Advent hymns and music, and then, how glorious, on Christmas Eve, we mark the time! Joy to the World! The Lord has indeed come! Let earth receive her King.
Christmas music also marks the time in another way—as we sing these hymns in the present, we remember all the times we’ve sung them, and the memories come flooding back for me, and probably for you as well. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Come, all ye faithful.” Many Christmas Eve services, ours included, begin with this musical processional. “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” I’m coming down the aisle of our church, singing with all of you, but I’m also way back in high school, in the Goldsboro High School Mixed Chorus, processing down the aisle, carrying a candle, singing with my friends. Those friends and that memory go with me every time I sing this hymn. And then, my family, every church I’ve been in, “O Come all ye faithful!” Through all the years, “O Come, all ye faithful” marks time for me.
Helmut Linne von Berg’s gift to our congregation for years has been to sing “Silent Night” in German on Christmas Eve. This year he won’t be here to do that, but when we hear those words, and light our candles, we will all feel a powerful connection to Helmut and to every person around the world who will be singing that hymn on Christmas Eve. Music marks the time and once more completes our circles of love more powerfully than words alone could ever do.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul brings the letter to a close with instructions. “Rejoice always!” Paul says. Music helps us to rejoice. And Paul says, “Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Music helps us to pray and to give thanks in all circumstances.
When I worked for Hospice, I was blessed to have a couple who loved music. They were both under hospice care, and they were in hospice for a while, so we had lots of time with them. My friend Stephen Hu, who is a fabulous musician, and can really sing country music, took time out of his busy schedule to play for Hospice patients, including this couple. Sometimes, our visits coincided. There we were, gathered with these two people who were in their last days, and usually with a few family members, rejoicing and singing old country songs like “I’ll fly away.” Rejoicing and praying without ceasing—“Some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away.” And the last verse, “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away, to a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away.” That music was carrying us all forward, beyond this life, rejoicing and with expectation. “To a place where joy shall never end….”
And music helps us to witness. Mary witnesses to God in the words of the Magnificat, also known as the Song of Mary. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” We’ve just sung “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord,” Mary’s words from her own song of praise.
We haven’t given John the Baptist his due this Advent, so let’s remember today, as the words of John’s gospel remind us, that John the Baptist was here to witness to Jesus as the Son of God. John the Baptist came “as a witness to testify to the light.”
When we sing our Christmas hymns, we, too, are testifying to the light, the light that shone in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
“Light and life to all he brings.” “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning.” “Yonder shines the infant Light.” “Behold, throughout the heavens, there shone a heavenly light.” “The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay.” “Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Christ at thy birth, Jesus Christ at thy birth.”
So in this year’s last week of Advent, let the music of Christmas become the language of your soul, your own prayer. Let this music bring you closer to God. As you pray, let the music of Christmas bring you back into that unbroken circle of love with those who are here, and those who have gone on to glory. May the light shining in us, bring light into the darkness and witness to God’s glory.
And as the birth of Jesus draws near, “Rejoice, give thanks and sing!”