Christmas 1 B: Carols of Thanksgiving and Lament

Quick Note: This a letter relating to the First Sunday in Christmas, Dec. 28. I’ve posted on the Christmas Eve and Day readings here.

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Sometimes, all we can do is sing.

This past fall we observed the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And so there were the requisite reviews in the news media of the events leading up to, surrounding, and following that remarkable and largely unforeseen event. One of the items that was routinely left out of those reviews, however, was the weeks of peaceful protests by the citizens of Leipzig that led up to the fall. Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas – they would sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. Some time after the fall, a journalist asked one of the commanders of the East German secret police why they hadn’t crushed these protests like that had so many others. He replied, “We had no contingency plans for song.”

Sometimes, all we can do is sing. Simeon knows that. Anna does as well. But, truth be told, we often forget that in our world of images and noise and incessant talk. So I wonder if one way to approach this Sunday is by yielding more of our gathering time to song. Perhaps either offering a brief sermon or introducing each carol with how it reflects the Christmas story and connects that story to our daily lives.

I suggest moving in this direction simply because we have in today’s passage another example of the power of song and prayer to create meaning and identity and courage in a way that words alone seldom can. Toward this end, let’s recall briefly, for a moment, the setting of this story. According to Luke, it’s now forty days after Jesus’ birth. After eight days, Jesus had been circumcised and named in accordance with Jewish law. Now, thirty-two days later, his parents are again performing their duty as faithful Jews by returning to the Temple, this time in order to offer a sacrifice and to consecrate their child to the Lord.

They must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to be baptized. And so for this very reason they were perhaps startled, even frightened, when Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, comes up to them to touch the child and then begins to sing.

Note, however, that he’s not singing of angels and mangers but rather that he sings of letting go, of departing, of – truth be told – dying. Why does Simeon offer this oddest of Christmas carols to the holy family? Because in the infant Jesus he has seen a sign and token that the Lord has kept the promises made to the Israelites of old and, trusting God’s promises, is able to accept his own death with courage. This is, by the way, why we sing Simeon’s song after receiving Holy Communion. For in this meal, we too, like Simeon, not only hear, but also see, touch, and feel the promise of life God makes to us. And after receiving this promise from God in the bread and wine, we too are propelled to confident and courageous lives even in a world so marked by death and loss.

Anna sings next. But hers are not songs of death but of praise and thanksgiving. She, too, receives the Christ child as a sign that God keeps God’s promises and all she can do is respond with thanksgiving.

Which is a reminder to us not only of the power of song, but that we are called to sing all kinds of songs. This Sunday, perhaps, our favorite carols because, well, they are our favorites and have been the means by which we tell and share the Christmas story for years. “Hark the Herald Angels” and “Away in a Manger” are two that do just that for me. But we might also sing carols of praise – whether “Go Tell It On a Mountain” or “Angels We Have Heard on High” – as such songs give us the chance to render thanksgiving not, perhaps, as we ought, but as we can with joyful voice and uplifted heart.

But in addition to these favorites, might we also sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” that reminds us that Christ came not only for the joyful but also the despairing? God still comes amid the bleakness of our life and world, and it’s helpful to remember that the holidays are for many of us a mixture of joy and regret, reunion and strife, hopes and disappointments, companionship and extreme loneliness. There will be some who have lost loved ones this year, or struggle with depression, or can’t find work, or despair over the bleak headlines of the news, and for all these reasons and more desperately crave to hear their laments among the praise. And they will take some measure of courage having had the chance to sing, and be reminded, that God comes to us precisely where we are broken.

Well, you know the carols you may want to sing, Dear Partner, following the pattern of Simeon and Anna, that will connect the Christmas story to the story of your people’s lives best. But if I might suggest just one more, it would be this, another hymn based upon a Christina Rossetti poem called “Love Came Down at Christmas.” Because here, finally, is where Simeon’s song of courage and death, and Anna’s praise and thanksgiving, and all the other things we may feel just a few days after Christmas come together: in the wonder that God came down to us in the vulnerable flesh of Jesus to take on our lot and our life that we might know of God’s great love for us and all people and, knowing this, have hope.

Songs have power. Songs continue to create light and life. Songs give us hope and allow us to express what is deep inside of us. Songs share the story of Jesus. Sometimes all we can do is sing, and that’s not a bad thing at all!

Blessed Christmas, Dear Partner, and thanks be to God for the songs of praise you offer each week through your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I’ve put below video adaptations of two of my favorite renderings of Love Came Down, the first by the group Jars of Clay, the second from Shawn Colvin.

Note: If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click on the title at the top of the post in order to watch the videos.