“We Sing Stories of Hope”
December 17, 2023 Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Luke 1:46-55, 1:67-80
Fourth Sunday of Advent
46 And Mary[a] said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name;50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;53 he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.69 He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us in the house of his servant David70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
It’s hard to believe. But Christmas Eve is one week from today. The night of Jesus’ birth is growing closer. For four weeks of Advent we have been asking ourselves “How does a weary world rejoice?,” a theme that acknowledges that we live in a world today with many challenges and much injustice. And yet through the season of Advent we are trying to find paths toward joy in the midst of the weariness. The question, “How does a weary world rejoice” is inspired by the line from the famous Christmas song, O Holy Night.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
We have a tradition here at Cobleskill United Methodist Church of hearing this song sung on Christmas Eve in a beautiful piano and voice duet. Because it’s usually sung at the 10pm late service, it’s possible some of you have not experienced it.
It would be hard to imagine Christmas without these lines of melody. But the history of the song is rather interesting and there was a time when the song’s future was in doubt. The song was originally commissioned by a French priest in 1847 of a local poet, Placide Cappeau. What’s interesting about this is that Placide Cappeau was known more for his poetry than for his regular attendance at church, and by some accounts he considered himself an atheist. And yet when he was asked to write a poem for Christmas, he was inspired on a particularly difficult journey on the road to Paris. He imagined how challenging the first Christmas night must have been and wrote verses down that captured what a redeemer coming to earth must have meant then and now. The song also included a clear recognition that Christ’s arrival must break down barriers that humans have put up, specifically around the enslavement of fellow humans. The third verse goes like this:
“Truly he taught us to love one another;His law is love and his gospel is peace.Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
Placide Cappeau recruited a popular composer Adolphe Adam to put a melody to this poem and the haunting lines of the song we know today emerged. Adolphe Adam was Jewish.
The “Song of Christmas,” as it became known in France, was sung on Christmas night in 1847 and immediately the parish loved it. They loved it so much that they sung it again the next year, and the next year…for 10 years straight. And yet when the song was about 10 years old, news of the song’s author not being a Christian and its composer a Jew reached the leaders of the French Catholic Church and the song was officially banned from Catholic services in that country. And yet, this is what is amazing, the community loved the song so much, they continued singing it in their homes, in the pubs and in the streets. Its popularity grew and the song was passed all around the country.
It was about this time that an American by the name of John S. Dwight, heard the song sung in French. Dwight was a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist. He was taken with the way the song combined the Christmas message of Jesus’ arrival with a clear and poignant call for an end to the oppression of slavery. The year was 1857. He translated the song into the English lyrics we know so well and the song quickly became popular in this country. But not everyone always included its third verse that referenced an end to slavery. Even though some areas of the country thought the third verse was inconvenient and they left it out, the tide of change in this country was already moving. Singing this song became an anthem of hope for those who believed things could be and would be different.
This is not the end of the story, though.
According to legend, during a break in fighting on Christmas Eve, 1870 during violence of the Franco-Prussian War, French soldiers who had learned this song from their communities, began walking onto the battlefield singing the Song of Christmas. Amazingly, after they finished, the German soldiers began singing a Christmas song of their own in German. This first Christmas truce lasted a full 24 hours, inspiring the officials in the French Catholic Church to reclaim this song as one not only of Christmas but of hope and the promise of peace in the face of all odds.
Several decades later in America on Christmas Eve of 1906, when he had finally figured out how to combine two frequencies so that speech and music could be transmitted over airwaves, Reginald Fessenden began the first-ever AM broadcast. He played some music by Handel over the airwaves and then he picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” becoming the first song to ever be performed live for the whole world to hear on radio. Wireless operators on ships in the Atlantic were stunned by what they heard.
Songs inspire us. Songs empower us. Songs allow us to say things that have been stirred up by God so that the world might change. Even if they proclaim that God’s truth is opposite to the reality of the weary world. Christmas gives us hope that better things are coming.
We sing songs of hope today because this is our tradition. Not only beginning with songs like “O Holy Night,” but with songs that are much older. When Mary found out she was carrying God’s son, she broke out into song with her cousin Elizabeth. Her Magnificat, which Natasha read for us today, is her song of hope in the face of great odds. It’s a song full of hopeful opposites. God has blessed her and with this gift will lift up the lowly and bring down the proud. God will cause the world to turn, to change, to have hope once more. This is the promise of God-with-us, Emmanuel. When Mary sang out, she knew. She knew. And she sang.
Zechariah, too. Luke’s first chapter is full of singing. He has only just regained his voice and he sings out. He praises God and he sings a sweet and compelling lullaby to his new son, John, who Zechariah knows will set out a path of peace, guiding them out of the shadows toward the light.
Will you join the song? I’m not talking about any particular song, I’m talking about The Song. God’s Song of Hope. The tradition of proclaiming that God’s presence here with us brings hope and the injustices of the world must be reversed. Even when it’s controversial. Even when the melody doesn’t fit into traditional boxes. Even when the words have to be sung in secret. Even when singing the song requires taking an unpopular stance. Can you find your voice to help proclaim a stubborn and persistent hope, the hope of Christmas, the hope of a God who dwells with us, so that we can stand up to injustice and inhumanity and silence in this weary world. Is this a song you can join?
Grace and Peace,