13 December 2015


Sing a Song of Bethlehem: An Advent Series

III.  Song

Luke 1:46-56

Third Sunday in Advent
13th December 2015

It’s music—the carols and anthems, bells and strings, brass and organ, piano—doing the preaching in the service today, giving witness to God’s good news.  Music is the medium of the message.  Sometimes music is the best way to get the message across.  Perhaps the most natural way our hearts respond to God’s love and grace is through song, music.  We want to cry out.  We want to sing.  We find ourselves becoming doxological.  We offer doxology, that is, words of doxa, meaning “glory: glory, glory, glory to the goodness and faithfulness of God!

The Bible is loaded with examples of this happening, of people responding to God’s grace with singing and praise.  Mary’s Song here in Luke 1, also known as the Magnificat, is one of the best examples of this.[1]  And her song is modeled on an earlier song sung by Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-11).  When Mary heard that she will bear a son who will redeem and heal the world, she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”—why?—“for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;…” (Luke 1:47-48).

Mary’s Song.  So simple.  So beautiful. So profound.  In medieval monastic and cloistered communities the Magnificat was read daily, during evening vespers (around 6 p.m.) in the week leading up to Christmas. And we know that these communities framed the reading of the Magnificat with a song, an antiphon, that is, a short sentence set to music.  These antiphons, known as the O Antiphons, eventually came to be the Advent hymn we know as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The seven antiphons that make up this hymn, one for each day leading up to Christmas, were sung before and after the reading of Mary’s Song.  Each antiphon or stanza lifts up an image, rooted in Scripture, which describes Mary’s son:  O Wisdom (Sapientia), O Lord (Adonai), O Root of Jesse (Radix Jesse), O Key of David (Clavis David), O Radiant Dawn (Oriens), O King of all nations (Rex Gentium), O Emmanuel (Emmanuel). 

We’re used to singing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…,” as the first stanza in the hymn, but this stanza was actually sung last, on the night before Christmas Eve.  Actually, the titles given to Jesus, Wisdom, Lord, Root, etc., in Latin, Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, Emmanuel form an acrostic; the first letters of each title together spell SARCORE, which when read in reverse spell the phrase Latin “ero cras,” which means,  “I come tomorrow” or “I shall be [with you] tomorrow.”[2]  Pretty cool, eh?  It sounds like something right of The DaVinci Code.  The hymn contains a hidden meaning.

The petitions or pleas found in theses antiphons, when combined with the Song of Mary, heighten the sense of imminence, expectation.  Something is about to happen.  Wake up.  Be ready.  Someone is about to be born.  Simeon later said to Mary, when Jesus was twelve, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).

Yes, the Magnificat is a song of praise.  And there’s reason to rejoice. The Magnificat is also a song of protest—which is also a reason to rejoice.  Why?  Because his birth signals God’s grand reversal, it announces the great undoing, the falling and rising of many.  The halls of power, the kingdoms and governments and economic systems of this earth should tremble with his coming.  His birth puts the prevailing ways of the world on edge.  For, as Mary sang, he will scatter the proud, he will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly—the lowly that have been put down, pressed down to the bottom by society; he will fill the hungry with good things, and will send the rich away empty, disappointed (Luke 1:51-53).  That’s why Mary’s rejoicing, because this one, this Jesus, this Yeshua, whose name means “Yahweh saves” will save us from all that binds and enslaves us; he will save us from all that separates us from God, our neighbor and ourselves; he will release us from all that oppresses and dehumanizes us, everything that causes us to be fearful and anxious.

Mary knew that his birth would mean the end to life as usual.  Nothing would ever, could ever be the same again.  His birth marks the birth of a New Age, a Radiant Light casting its rays upon a New Day.  The contemporary Advent hymn Canticle of the Turning, based on Mary’s Song, beautifully captures this idea (even if the tune is a bit tricky for us):  

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. 
Let the fires of your justice burn. 
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone. 
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne. 
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread;
every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn: 
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. 
Let the fires of your justice burn. 
Wipe away all tears,
for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.[3]

And we are waiting for that turn, eager for that turn.  Now, more than ever, we need to hear that the turn is coming.  We need to know the turn is coming, feel it coming.  Advent is always a dark time.  But it feels especially dark this year, given the events of the world and here closer to home in the last month. We wish God’s promised tomorrow would be today.

Shortly, our choir will sing the anthem Carol of Joy, composed by Dan Forrest and set to the poetry of Eileen Berry.  The choir first sang this piece three years ago, the Sunday after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  This piece was a gift to us that morning.  So much has changed in the world since then, but also, sadly, so little. 

The Carol of Joy is beautiful; it’s honest, yet hopeful.  Like Mary’s Song, it’s filled with joy, tinged with pain and sorrow.  We must remember that the Savior was born to a world such as ours, for people in need of healing, for people who are broken and fearful and fallen and friendless.  I’m grateful that Greg Knauf chose to use it again today.  We need to hear its message.  It gives expression to what many of us are feeling these days—and it reminds us, as Christians, as people of faith, of our responsibility in these dark times to bear witness to God’s light and joy and love.  Mary’s song is your song.


“Carol Of Joy” by Eileen Berry
Green leaves all fallen, withered and dry;
Brief sunset fading, dim winter sky.
Lengthening shadows,
Dark closing in...
Then, through the stillness, carols begin!
Oh fallen world, to you is the song--
Death holds you fast and night tarries long.
Jesus is born, your curse to destroy!
Sweet to your ears, a carol of Joy!
Pale moon ascending, solemn and slow;
Cold barren hillside, shrouded in snow;
Deep, empty valley veiled by the night;
Hear angel music--hopeful and bright!
Oh fearful world, to you is the song--
Peace with your God, and pardon for wrong!
Tidings for sinners, burdened and bound--
A carol of joy!
A Saviour is found!
Earth wrapped in sorrow, lift up your eyes!
Thrill to the chorus filling the skies!
Look up sad hearted--witness God's love!
Join in the carol swelling above!
Oh friendless world, to you is the song!
All Heaven's joy to you may belong!
You who are lonelyladenforlorn--
Oh fallen world!
Oh friendless world!
To you,

A Saviour is born!

See also Dan Forrest's website for other recordings of this anthem. 

[1] This sermon series is designed to complement our adult education series, written by Mary Louise Bringle & Beverly Howard, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on Four Seasonal Hymns, Resource for Advent I. (The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation: The Thoughtful Christian, 2015).
[2] Bringle & Howard.
[3] Roy Cooney, Canticle of the Turning, set to the tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. 

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