As we have heard from the youth candle lighters and in Alexandra’s Children Sermon, due to a particularity of the calendar this year, the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve fall on the same day. In case you were wondering, you might think it is Christmas Eve, but technically, it isn’t yet. If you are looking for a proclamation of Jesus’ birth this morning, I am sorry to disappoint you, but we are still in Advent, a season that helps us prepare for what it means to receive the arrival of God’s incarnate love for the world through the birth of Christ. It is a four-week season which includes four Sundays, and I joked with the staff earlier this month that with this Sunday morning, we still have 25% of those Sundays left!
In a previous church I served, while I was there the calendar offered us this same conundrum and invitation to plan for this day in a certain way, and there were those who wanted to move right from the Third Sunday of Advent directly to Joy to World and Silent Night. It seemed odd to me that in a season of waiting, we were rushing ahead to the manger, zipping past the last part of Advent. I am not the sole arbiter of when it is no longer Advent and when it becomes Christmas Eve, but if I were, I’d say that it is sometime after about 11:30 am and definitely by 4:00 pm Central Standard Time!
If we skipped over this morning and went right to this afternoon’s family-centered service and this evening’s candlelight services, we would miss the chance to continue in our preparations for all that is to come, and we would miss the chance to sing what this day invites us to lift up in song. Yes, when you return for Christmas Eve worship later today, either here in the Sanctuary or online, we will sing and we will receive the gift of our choirs singing as they offer their music to God, but this morning provides us with the opportunity for a particular kind of singing: the singing of weary people waiting for what is yet to come and the singing of a weary world finding hope by joining voices in song. This morning we can sing of hope as only a weary world can, as only a people who haven’t yet proclaimed that the Lord is come, that Christ the Savior is born.
In our two texts this morning from Luke’s Gospel, which bookend last week’s reading of John the Baptist’s birth, we hear two voices lifting praise to God in song, Zechariah and Mary. We heard Mary’s voice first, and then Zechariah’s. Zechariah has been silent for months while awaiting the birth of his son John the Baptist, a vision the angel Gabriel predicted while Zechariah was serving in the temple.
His voice returns and his first words, after sharing with Elizabeth in naming his son, are ones of blessing and praise. And these early words his son John hears are ones of rejoicing and hope, which have been born of weariness and isolation.Zechariah’s is a song of hope for the future, a certain kind of hope after waiting through a long period of silence.
He bursts into thanksgiving for God’s favor as he acknowledges that God has something better for those who wait. The first part of Zechariah’s song is praising God not for sending John, but for sending Jesus, “the mighty savior.” Zechariah does direct his song to his son at the end, “And you, child, will be the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s ways,” acknowledging John’s role as the one who is to prepare the way for Jesus. Zechariah sings a story of hope for all children to be blessed by the tender mercy of God.
Just as Zechariah was compelled to sing praises to God at the birth of his son John, Mary sings after her encounter with Elizabeth, who proclaims blessings upon Mary, a few months before John is born. Mary’s song is also one of hope, in which justice and joy are interwoven, which acknowledge that God has already done great things that might call forth a weary world to rejoice. Known as the Magnificat, it is one of the more recognizable pieces of Scripture. In 1933, German theologian, pastor, and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of the Magnificat that, “This song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, wildest, and one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.”
He reminds us that, “This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary we sometimes see in paintings…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols.” In fact, in Guatemala in the 1980s, the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words, because they were deemed to be dangerous and revolutionary. It is a song of salvation, with political, social, and economic implications which cannot be softened or denied. Mary sings to those who are poor, hungry, or experiencing homelessness. She sings to those who have been excluded, denied, and devalued. She sings to and for those who are weary.
Likewise, the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti calls these verses “fierce and dangerous,” and she argues that it is important that we hear them, and I would add that we understand them, before we get to Jesus’ birth. So often Mary is imagined as mild, meek, young, and just going along doing what she is told, but the Gospel text doesn’t support that imagery many hold onto.
Scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, sending away the rich- these ideas challenge the notion of the balance of the world, in Mary’s time and in ours! Dr. Luti goes on to say: “[Mary] intones a song whose verses leave no room for doubt: this hard world is real, and it is miserable —and it is not all there is to say or see. Its suffering and injustice are horrific, and they are decidedly not the will of God…” She is describing a weary and worn world, but Mary knows it is one that can receive a song of hope and promise about a God who delivers, heals, and restores.
Artist Nicolette Peñaranda, in her piece Embroidered Borders, describes how Mary’s song reverberates today through the people and the land of Palestine. She writes: “One can imagine that the cries for liberation and the prayers for justice still ring down the streets of Bethlehem. To me, Mary’s song of praise is still valid for the women of Palestine and for the people who still raise their children under the duress of war and occupation.” Her comments were written before October 7 of this year. We can wonder how the Magnificat gives voice to those who continue to suffer injustice, how such a revolutionary song is resistance against the powers of weariness.
During last Saturday’s simulcast service connecting Westminster with our partner Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church and other communities across the world, the gathered faithful heard Scripture and prayers in a shared commitment to justice and peace and the coming light of God. What I found most moving about the service was the power of singing together in that shared resistance to the unimaginable weariness of the horrors happening around our partners in Bethlehem. Those who sang from Christmas Lutheran Church did so next to a manger scene of the baby Jesus wrapped in a keffiyeh, a traditional scarf and symbol of Palestinian identity, and placed atop a pile of rubble: broken pieces of concrete, wood, shepherds and animals standing watch amidst the toppled mess. There is an image of this scene on display near the Westminster Reception Desk.
The global congregation sang at the opening O Come All Ye Faithful just moments after the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac described what it is like for Christmas celebrations to be cancelled because of the genocide taking place in Gaza, as children are killed, as aid is withheld, as people are living in fear and with deep trauma. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem…Sing! Sing in exultation!”
What does it mean for this weary part of the world to rejoice in song? What does it mean for us to join in the exultation?
In his opening prayer, Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez, from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, offered these words:
“In this Christmas Season, let it be our duty and delight to hear once more the message of the Angels, to go to Bethlehem and see the Son of God lying in a manger. Let us hear and heed in Holy Scripture the story of God’s loving purpose from the time of our rebellion against [God] until the glorious redemption brought to us by [God’s] holy Child Jesus, and let us make this season glad with our carols of praise.”
I was amazed by this willingness to suggest we might make this weary season glad by singing songs of praise.
It was powerful to sing together, across time and continents and contexts, from the relative safety of our world here, with those experiencing some of the harshest weariness God’s people can fathom. The service invited us to consider how our singing might be in solidarity with the songs from those whose Advent season has been full of woe and weariness. Singing pushes back on the misery and the pain and declares that this is not all that there is. God is at work and the Holy Spirit is moving and there is a different world we can imagine and create, and singing together might be one of the few ways to feel like we can bring that into being.
Later in the service, prayers were offered by leaders from Bethlehem, and Philadelphia. Throughout the prayers, a sung response in Arabic was interwoven from the worshippers gathered in Bethlehem, which translated in English means, “God of peace, in your wisdom, give us the will to seek peace. God of peace and healing, fill with your peace every heart.” These words were repeated in song, in a heartbreaking song to a God whom we as people of faith believe can and will bring about this peace and healing.
Mary sings about a God of liberation, of a new world order desperately needed. Mary proclaims that God has already done those things that allow a weary world to rejoice with a song of hope as part of the story of justice, joy, healing, and righteous peace. We understand Mary’s Magnificat to be lifted up in the presence of her relative Elizabeth, and for Zechariah’s song to resound in the company of the gathered neighbors from across the entire Judean hill country. These songs of hope and declaration are not sung in private, just as weary worshippers in Bethlehem and across the world last Saturday prayed songs for peace and healing together.
Studies have shown that communal singing can build social bonds and collective joy, positively impacting overall health and wellbeing. This is something Westminster’s choir members know in their very being, and perhaps it is something you feel while singing hymns as part of the congregation. The “Sing with Us Study,” conducted in the UK followed nearly 200 participants and explored the psychosocial and psychobiological impact of singing for those undergoing cancer treatment. Those who participated saw improvements “in pain, vitality, social function, depression, and overall mental health.” The study revealed that “a single choir session reduced stress hormones and increased levels of immune proteins in peoples affected by cancer.” Other studies have shown that group singing fosters cooperation, social cohesion, and trust. One in particular affirmed that “what lies at the heart of musical activity is the co-construction of a social reality through music, binding each individual to the other individuals, to the whole group, and often with those listening.”
Worshippers in Bethlehem, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, and from many other lands last weekend, created in song a co-construction of a new social reality through music, and each person was bound to others, remembering God’s holy covenant, with their weary spirits rejoicing in God our Savior.
As we draw closer to the time of Christ’s birth, may we notice the importance of singing in Luke’s narrative. Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah know their weariness, they find joy in connection, they are amazed in their waiting and weariness, and all of it leads to rejoicing through song. Their songs show us what bold, robust hope looks like. It looks like a deep yearning for those who are hungry to be fed, for those who have been deemed lowly by others to be lifted up, for children to be blessed by the tender mercy of God. If hope feels out of reach, the act of singing has the power to transform us. On this day, let us sing a hopeful song. This is how we can welcome Christ with joy.
 Savina J. Martin, “Songs of Revolutionary Mothers,” in We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign, edited by Liz Theoharis (Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books), 2021, p. 189-190.
 Ibid., 189-190.
 From Artist’s Statement in A Sanctified Art Advent Preaching Resource.
 From the study conducted by David A. Camlin, Helena Daffern, and Katherine Zeserson, titled, “Group singing as a resource for the development of a healthy public: a study of adult group singing,” published August 5, 2020. More information available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-020-00549-0.