This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on December 20, 2015.
My wife is a classically trained musician and has been playing piano since she was 4 years old. I, on the other hand, had about a year of piano when I was a child, and the only instrument I am capable of operating is a sound board – a place where I have a lot of experience.
Nevertheless I have long had an intense appreciation and enjoyment of good music, and I have come to appreciate using music to help put me in the right place for worship (All Sons and Daughters has become a Sunday morning routine before church), but also in the preparation of writing.
Not too long ago I preached on Psalm 40 (one of my favorite Psalms), and I must have listened to U2’s 40 a few dozen times over the course of that week. Its beautiful use of the powerful lyrics of scripture’s poetry along with solid musical backing has me loving it. I prefer the “Live from Red Rocks” recording (https://youtu.be/AjtpplE39_g). There is a beautiful moment when the entire crowd is singing “How long to sing this song” over and over. It gives me chills, and this song easily helped my heart and mind think and pray through writing on Psalm 40.
This parallel of music and scripture is so deep and profound in the text for the fourth week of Advent in Year C, provided that you include the optional 46-55 along with 39-45. There is a beautiful and profoundly simple message of joy and delight in 39-45, but my love of Mary’s Hymn is far too strong to leave her words out.
Clearly the long tradition of music has given many interpretations of this text that might be used for inspiration. Certainly when the great Johann Sebastian Bach has composed something, we would be well not to ignore it. Nevertheless, no slight to Bach’s Magnificat, the first song that comes to mind as I think and dwell on the message of the words of Mary – these upending words of divine reversal – is Do You Hear the People Sing? from the Broadway musical Les Miserables.
The message is different, but they are both songs that stir my heart and speak of society turning upside down. Clearly the advent of the second coming of Christ is not to be understood in French Revolution images and motives, but Mary nevertheless sings out a rousing anthem that calls for change and participation in God’s work no less than the emotionally charged scene in Les Miserables prompts oppressed people to work up the courage to take action (https://youtu.be/gMYNfQlf1H8):
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
A song can put into words what we are often incapable of expressing on our own, and Mary’s voice echoes through years a refrain of hope, joy, and the coming orienting actions of justice. She voices the hearts and minds of generations of people for whom injustice has long been the norm.
Mary doesn’t need a pulpit to preach a message of hope for the future, of justice ringing out across the land, and of the day when the Anointed One, the Liberating King, will return to shouts of welcome and acclaim from his people. Mary’s anthem of God rang out then, and it still resounds today. A powerful testimony of the reorienting work of God, and the powerful effect of music.
Perhaps rather than directing the lyrics of Mary’s Hymn – teasing apart lines and words of theology, expectation, politics, or justice, we ought to instead help her message to be sung with power and rousing inspiration. To let Mary convey what Advent looks forward to in song. On one of the most attended days of the church year, let us hold up a microphone to scripture, and let Mary’s voice carry us away as we long for the hope and joy of the spiritual crescendo that is to come.
We look towards the second coming of Christ. The Great Crescendo. A time of joyous expectation that will come like the finale of Les Miserables (https://youtu.be/RtbcZmCc7rg):
Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the plough-share
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward!
Not as theologically accurate as we might like, but contained in them an echo of the spirit of Mary’s song to be sure. Which only leaves us asking ourselves during this season of Advent, “How long to sing this song?”
J. David Tate
Coordinator, Certificate of Ministry Program
George W. Truett Theological Seminary,
Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Tags: music, Advent, hope, justice, crescendo