In the aftermath of the events of the past two days, I found myself troubled at the prospect of singing songs of joy in these circumstances. I had to work it out in words for myself. I share the result with you, for what it's worth.
It’s mid-December. And the decorations are going up, there’s no escaping the holiday music on the radio, in the mall.
It’s all about peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Celebrating Jesus’ birth. Holiday feasts. Chestnuts roasting, halls decked, trees trimmed, packages wrapped.
And in Newtown, the bodies of 20 young children and 6 adults are finally being taken away to the morgue.
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant . . .
Joyful? Who can find joy in the face of this? Triumphant? Who won? The families whose lives have forever been ripped apart in ways the rest of us can only pray we may never begin to know? The murderer, confused, insane, out of control, careening toward destruction himself?
Not a lot of joy or triumph to be found, unfortunately. None on the shelf. And in this poor battered state of Connecticut, Sandy Hook School follows hard on the heels of Sandy the megastorm and its devastation. In these parts, we already reckoned 2012 annis horribilis – a year of horrors – as of December 13. And then Newtown.
We find ourselves in a disorienting realm of darkness and despair. Not a realm many of us inhabit regularly, at least to this degree. Strange place, this.
Hark! the herald angels sing glory to the newborn King . . .
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? How shall we raise our voice in celebration? What’s the good of having a voice, what can it accomplish in the face of utter, ascendant, evil? How dare we sing Alleluias and Gloria in excelsis Deo? How do we dare?
Well, how do we not?
163 years ago, Edward Hamilton Sears wrote these extraordinary words. Read them, and don’t hum along:
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on earth, good will to men, from heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats o'er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o'er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,
when peace shall over all the world its ancient splendors fling,
and all the world send back the song which now the angels sing.
There’s a reason we sing this hymn at St. Paul’s the end of the Advent Carol Service. It is not particularly a Christmas hymn, although that’s how it has come to be typecast. It is a hymn which offers a unique perspective on the realms of heaven and how they relate to and interact with our own gritty, sad, mortal reality.
As Sears sees it, the heavenly hymn began at Jesus’ birth, but has been ringing out ever since, a song unheard by a people hardened by war and confused by sin. It rang out during the crucifixion of Jesus. It continued through the atrocities of the crusades and the unspeakable evil of the holocaust. The angels were singing, heartbroken, as bullets flew and children died this past Friday. They sing now.
Jesus didn’t come here on vacation. He came here because things were horribly wrong. He didn’t come to admire the Christmas decorations or to take a tour of the new wing on Herod’s palace. He wasn’t into hobnobbing. He never knew luxury. What he knew was that the price of freeing humanity from the murderous snare of its own sin was his life, given freely, in agony. And he knew his sacrifice would not immediately end the violence and pain of this world. As Sears notes, they’ve had to be patient angels, singing away through 2000 years of awfulness, and counting.
But the song has begun to reverberate, just a little, here and there - the world sending it back, imperfectly, almost unrecognizably, to the angels. It happens when love and grace are paid forward; when children are cherished, and when vulnerable people are not left to fend for themselves; when justice prevails, or when wars kill hundreds instead of thousands instead of millions (our version of the angels’ song is still very imperfect – we take our triumphs where we can find them and press on). Above all, it happens when we refuse to acknowledge that our sinful, sorry lot is immutable, or that evil has won.
And we do this by singing.
So yes, we will sing “O come, all ye faithful” in coming days, and we will sing “Hark! the herald angels sing,” and “Once in royal David’s city,” and the rest. And it will matter. For although we grieve, by singing these words, intentionally, with our minds, hearts, and voices, we tell the world, plainly and loudly, that evil has not won, that we will not let it win, and that we solemnly commit ourselves, in the Name of Jesus Christ, to making it so. And thus by raising our song we undertake the impossibly difficult, and utterly essential, work of perfecting the angels’ song here on earth just a little bit more.
May God be with us all in these coming days, and most especially with the good people of Newtown in their grief.
From an email message by Organist and Director of Music John Abdenour to our choir families, Sunday December 16, 2012.