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Songs of Salvation

December 15, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2013

Luke 1: 39-55 (Magnificat)          Luke 1: 68-79 (Benedictus)

I find it impossible to think about Christmas without thinking about Christmas music. First of all, during the consumer shopping season from Black Friday through Christmas Eve, and the return and exchange season from Christmas Day to New Years Eve, Christmas music is everywhere – in every shopping mall, restaurant, radio commercial and holiday movie. For some retailers, the holiday season can represent as much as 20% – 40% of annual sales, and the music helps get us in the mood to buy.[1] It floods us with memories and emotions. According to psychologists, “Music is second only to smell for its ability to reach inside and trigger our memories, emotions, and emotional memories. It can remind us instantaneously of a person, place, and time. It can trigger memories of happy times, of events, and of people that bring us joy. But it can also remind us of sad times, of times we were angry, in denial, struggling, and fighting. Music can do this without our conscious effort. All we need to do is simply [hear] a song and the memory and emotions associated with that memory are evoked.”[2] When we walk into a store filled with familiar music and are faced with our own unique combination of loss, grief, nostalgia and pleasure, we are suckers for the products and promises that fuel our economy. It is the soundtrack to a commercial Christmas.

But interestingly enough, we also associate Christmas and music because some of our most profound reflection on the mystery of God’s incarnation-among-us is contained in Christmas songs: “Once in Royal David’s City” is a compendium of faith, originally written for children to help them understand the meaning of the Apostle’s Creed; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” calls us to bear witness with the “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing,” while “Joy to the World” speaks to our hearts of God’s present and future reign in which “heaven and nature sing.”

In church we take time to sing the songs of advent longing: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,” a refrain we have been singing since the ninth century to give voice to our deepest desire for one who will “bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and discord cease, till the whole world knows heaven’s peace.” And in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” especially with the original verses restored in our new hymnal, we are reminded that it is all our noise and strife that keeps us from hearing the angel song, with the result that we have known “two thousand years of wrong.”

Sure, some of our music is sappy, or simple. But as the psychologists point out, even these can carry profound emotions and memories as they connect us year to year in the worship of our God. When I read yesterday of the rare snowstorm in Jerusalem, I thought first of climate change, and then I reached for “In the Bleak Midwinter” an English hymn that imagines Jesus’ birth in the winter weather of England rather than Palestine in order to make the Nativity more immediate and personal for its first congregations. And we too this year imagine Bethlehem covered in snow.

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But perhaps the most important reason for associating Christmas with music is that it is biblical. The Christmas story brims with music.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth alone contains six songs of praise, almost like a Broadway musical in which characters break forth in song at critical moments. And like musical theater, the songs are important. They help us see “what is really going on” in, with and through the birth of this child.

They show us the context of Christ’s coming and explain the impact of that coming.  In a time when Rome viciously dominated the Hebrew people, first by brutal invasion complete with crucifixions and mass enslavement, second by squeezing the conquered peoples through tax and tribute in order to thirdly solidify their domination through the deployment of military and the erecting of lavish monuments and palaces; in this time; a time of hopelessness and terror for Jews, a time of vulnerability and lowliness, a time when most were hungry and poor, God comes.  God comes to insist that the hungry shall be full and the powerful rulers who have pressed down the conquered peoples, will be toppled from their thrones.  These songs are the prophetic imagination of God’s righteousness up-ending a society built on domination in order that the ones made poor might eat.

These biblical songs underscore that God’s coming doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it is neither politically nor personally innocuous. God’s salvation happens in and through the society of oppressed peoples and  individuals who have been made lowly; made, ultimately, dispensable.  Elizabeth too-old to have a child and yet having one who would shake the foundations of the empire and point to the Messiah.  And disgraced Mary, who either hightails it (or is hurried off) to her cousin’s house to seek refuge, carrying within her womb the one we confess as “very God, of very God.”  Simeon, a faithful man grown old yet whose eyes could yet see the salvation, the release that this child brought for the people of Israel and all nations.  And the prophet Anna, an 84-year old widow who never left the temple, but fasted and prayed who immediately recognized that this child would redeem Jerusalem.

220px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magnificat_(Le_magnificat)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall_

In the midst of all the dialogue and action, Elizabeth sings to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Mary sings the Magnificat, a dangerous vision of a world turned upside down by the faithful action of God to those who have been trampled.  And the heavenly host weighs in just in case we’ve somehow missed the import of the people’s songs.  “Hark!” the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”  Simeon sings what has become a staple of vespers: “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the world to see, a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”  Last week, Pastor Lynn introduced us to the Song of Zechariah, and the final song belongs to the prophet Anna who breaks forth in a song of praise just as the credits roll at the end Luke’s birth story in chapter two.  From now on, it seems, anything can happen.

Did you notice how important the women are to the story? They get most of the songs. Not only does Mary sing about a revolution in which the powerful and proud are brought low while the humble are exalted, where the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty, but she sings about how God has regarded her, a woman made lowly by her society and even her Jewish tradition who is made strong by God’s attention. “My soul magnifies the Lord, because he that is mighty has done good things for me.”

Of the men, on the other hand, Simeon dies with a song of praise in his mouth, and the only other living male to sing a song, Zechariah, spends most of the story mute. In fact, our author Luke seems to be saying that the silencing of Zechariah, this privileged male leader from the ruling class of Judea, is necessary for us to hear a story that is predominantly about women, and by this I mean not that the story is about females, but that when women appear in this birth narrative, they represent not just women but all who are marginalized.  And this narrative lies within in a gospel in which God favors the outsiders; first the women, and then the poor, those who are sick, and, eventually, people who belong to nations outside Israel.

So while men as well as women sing in the opening of the gospel, if we don’t hear women sing, we miss the “good news” of what God is doing through the birth of Jesus. We miss how the crooked ways are being made straight and all paths made level, and human relationships restored to the way they are meant to be.

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? It was created by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 as a way of evaluating gender portrayals in film, fiction, television and other media.It basically asks three questions:

  1. Does the story have at least two women in it?
  2. Do the women talk to one another?
  3. And do they talk about something other than a man?[3]

It is astounding how few films and books can pass this test, and I challenge you use the test for a while and share with others what you are learning about how our media portray women and men and how we relate to one another.[4] For example, I went to see the opening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug an adaptation of Tolkien’s famed book, at midnight on Thursday with a friend, and I applied the test. There were only two women in the entire film. Sure, one was an elf queen, and one was a wickedly strong warrior, but they never spoke to one another, and when she wasn’t fighting orcs, the warrior was primarily torn between  loyalty to the man who loves her, the man that she is falling love with, and her father whom she must disobey in order to help the Hobbit and his friends. Ugh!

The-Hobbit-Desolation-of-Smaug

We have been using this test in my own family for months when we choose what to watch on Family Movie Night each Friday. August has even used it to try and persuade me to buy him a new book because, “It passes the test dad. There are two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.”

I bought the book.

You know, it occurred to me this week that our Christmas Story, as told by Luke, passes the Bechdel Test, and I wanted to be sure you saw this too. Mary and Elizabeth speak to one another, and what they talk about is not their men but the present activity of God to restore, renew, and reconcile all things through the messiah – and how God needs their participation.

Why is this important? This past week one of the congregations in our Presbytery broke ties with us and left for another denomination. Sure, this congregation was more conservative theologically than most of us, but they left principally because they said they could not remain part of a church that ordains gay and lesbian persons to ordained leadership, which we do. Compounding our grief at this decision, the denomination to which this church is going does not ordain women or permit them in leadership. The women elders who represented the congregation at the presbytery proclaimed they went willingly to such submission. The women in that congregation would rather give up their ordination than see gay men and women, whom God has also regarded and lifted up, share in leadership. Friends, we have failed somewhere, somehow to also portray the centrality of women in God’s work of redemption. We have work to do. God calls strong women to lead the church and God needs strong women to accomplish the work of the messiah. Without them it is not good news for anyone.

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You are privileged to be served by strong women in this congregation, both as teaching and ruling elders as well as deacons. This is Good News we embody each time we gather, and I for one do not take it for granted.

This afternoon at 4:00, we will be going Christmas Caroling to the homebound and at Kingsley House . We will sing songs of mystery and love, of anticipation and incarnation, of divine action and human praise. We will conclude with a visit to the home of May and Marc, whose little baby Lea was born on Tuesday, and is just five days old, and is the newest child among us. With Mary, let us sing to her, and to her sisters Jane and Hannah, of a God who calls strong girls and women to participate in redeeming this world.

Amen.

After the sermon we sang “Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn”, an Advent hymn about songs of salvation. Here is a link to lyrics and a video recording taken in another church. 


[4] I first heard of the Bechdel Test through Colin Stoke’s TED Talk on “How Movies Teach Manhood.” http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood.html

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