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The Unbroken Song

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Luke 1:39-56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, who has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear the Lord from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

These words from Mary were not a speech. This passage is often called the Song of Mary, or the Canticle of Mary, and is one of the most ancient hymns of the church. The Bible, at times, is like a Broadway musical—people just break out into song! But this is not an “I’m Singing in the Rain” type of musical. And this is not an inspirational “Climb Every Mountain” kind of song. It’s not even Elfaba in Wicked singing about defying gravity, because that’s about individual limits. We’re getting a little closer in the song Yorktown from the musical Hamilton, when at last the colonies win their freedom, and they sing “A world turned upside down.”

That’s closer to what Mary’s song is. She is singing about a world turned upside down. “In this part of Luke’s sprawling opening chapter, Mary reveals that the recent cosmic events in which she has been caught up have taught her a thing or two as to what God is up to and how God just generally operates. Mary is aware of her humble status in her time and culture. She was property as much as anything, belonging first to a father and then later to a husband….She didn’t belong to a famous family, hadn’t grown up in a big city, and had absolutely no prospects whatsoever to make a mark in the world or to ever be remembered beyond the next generation or so. Yet miraculously and startlingly, God had visited her with news so stunning, it would take at least the rest of her mortal days to understand it all. But that reversal of circumstances, that lifting up of the lowly, that exaltation of the humble, told Mary that this is how God works.”[1] God will turn the world upside down because now the lowly are called blessed, the proud will be scattered, the powerful will be brought down,  and even the hungry will have food.

A wide variety of classical composers have set Mary’s words to music, but I was moved this week by a contemporary version by an artist named Rory Cooney because it really brings out this element of the song. It starts with “My soul cries out with a joyful shout,” but it gets into the protest in verse two.

Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me

and your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.

Your very name puts the crowd to shame and for those who before you yearn

you will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.

My heart shall sing of the day you’ll bring, let the fires of your justice burn,

wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.[2]

That’s what Mary is talking about! The world is about to turn. It is both encouragement and warning. Don’t worry—the world is about to turn! Get ready—the world is about to turn! It’s a timeless message, for we certainly need some world-turning. We need for the powerful to be brought down. We need for the hungry to be fed. We need for the lowly to be called blessed and those who prey on others to walk away empty-handed. We need our despair to be challenged, our worry to be transformed. We need the world to turn on a national level, a local level, and a personal level. And it takes a song to do it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also knew about having his world turned, though not in a good way. On July 9, 1861, Fanny Longfellow’s dress caught on fire. The details are unclear. Some say she was working with a candle and some sealing wax, and an errant breeze caused the incident. She ran to her husband, who desperately tried to help put out the fire—with a rug, with his hands and with his body—but by the time the fire was extinguished, her injuries were too severe. She died the next day. Her husband was also injured, with burns on his hands and face, and he was too ill even to attend his wife’s funeral. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grieved deeply for his beloved wife. The first Christmas after Fanny’s death [1861], Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, this beloved poet still could not find words to describe his grief. He wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

 

The following Christmas, the second Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow’s journal entry for December 1862 reads, ‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.’”[3] A few months later, early in 1863, his son Charles defied his wishes and joined the Union Army in the Civil War. And on December 3rd of that year, Henry received word that Charley had been injured—a bullet had gone through him and nicked his spine. It was either that Christmas or the next that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong, And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

You may not have heard two of those verses—the ones specific to the Civil War. But those verses, along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s personal story, speak to tremendous pain—personal, as well as national. Without those verses, the story is actually a bit abrupt—there is no peace, oh wait! yes there is! But the full poem makes it clear that the articulation of the loss, “there is no peace on earth,” I said, comes after full acknowledgment of the pain. And that’s when the bells can ring more loud and deep. That’s when the power of the song can change his perspective. That’s when we can start to believe that the wrong will fail and the right prevail. That’s when we can start to sing along with Mary, as her soul magnifies the Lord. It takes a song—an honest heart-song about justice—to change her, to change the world.

“For several months preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church to sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the East German secret police why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, ‘We had no contingency plan for song.’”[4]

The world has no contingency plan for song. The world has no way to combat the power of the songs our soul sings—     especially not songs that name our longings, songs that do not ignore our pain, songs that speak of a world we will be part of creating . . .within ourselves, within our community, within our nation. Mary sang it. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote it. We sing it now, for ourselves and one another,      an unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to all.

Let’s sing with Mary. Let’s sing with Longfellow. (But on that chorus, let’s expand good will to all rather than just men!) Our world may be broken; we may be broken, or at least wounded at times;    but the song is unbroken. The song goes on. And because of that song, The world is about to turn.

[1] Hoezee, Scott. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-4c/

[2] Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney.

[3] Meyer, Don. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/don-meyer-phd/i-heard-the-bells-on-chri_b_2316476.html

 

[4] Lose, David. “Singing as an Act of Resistance.”

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