Songs of love and justice

Text: Luke 1:26-56 (Mary’s song)

In 2005, I joined a choir in Toronto called the “Bell’Arte Singers,” and that December, we presented a Christmas concert.

The program booklet for the concert talked about our hopes for a world of greater peace and joy, and it ended with the phrase, “Another World is Possible.” The latter struck me since this was the slogan of the anti-globalization movement — the young activists who showed up for World Trade Organization talks like the big one in Seattle in 1999 and who protested against corporate greed.

Just before the concert, I asked our conductor if it had been his idea to include the slogan. He said “no,” but added that he agreed with it. In fact, he said our concert that evening would prove the slogan right — our singing would nudge the world one millimetre closer to its salvation. While that might seem like an odd idea, I found myself agreeing with him! That evening we were doing our small bit to help change the world one joyous song at a time.

When I returned to school full-time as a divinity student in 2007, I left Bell’Arte because I was also working full-time, and something had to give. But I loved the choir and it made me a better singer.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Mary sings a song of joy and hope for a better world when she learns that she is to give birth to Jesus. She rejoices in the mercy of God and predicts that the hungry will be filled and the rich and powerful will be brought down from their thrones.

This passage from Luke is one of the most famous in the Bible. Many composers have set Mary’s song to music, which often have the title Magnificat because in the Latin translation of Luke’s original Greek text, the first word of the song is “Magnificat” — “My soul magnifies the Lord.” I think the English translation is pretty evocative as well.

But Mary sang her song over 2,000 years ago, and the world still has too many hungry people and too many powerful people we would like to see thrown down off their thrones. So is there any point in singing songs of love and justice?

You may have noticed this year that singing is important to me. I love to sing, and the hymns often feel like the most important part of worship to me.

When I returned to church in 2001, the choir was key. Joining the choir of Kingston Road United in Toronto gave me a new group of friends and a role in worship. I also found that expressing our faith in song affected me.

Perhaps the choir wasn’t changing the world; but it was helping to change me. And perhaps that was enough.

In worship in general, and in sacred songs in particular, we come together to remind ourselves of what we most value in life. This Advent we have used our Sunday services to remind ourselves of God’s Grace under the headings of Hope in times of darkness, of Peace in times of violence, of Joy in times of difficulties, and of Love in the face of injustice.

At its best, worship might move us to feed the hungry, comfort those who are sad, and join young activists who protest injustice.

But even when worship doesn’t have these clear effects, it can help restore our priorities. Further, when we come together to sing songs of God’s love and justice, we both remind ourselves of the importance of beauty, and sometimes we create that beauty. We both remind ourselves that God’s Grace is always available to us, and we sometimes experience an opening to that Grace in the moment. We both remind ourselves that God’s reign will be one of freedom for all, and sometimes we live out that freedom in our sacred gathering.

Worship doesn’t just involve singing, of course. It can also include prayer, silence, sharing circles, and drama. Finally, worship often includes wordy sermons, in which we sometimes lose the thread that connects us to the Divine instead of grasping it more firmly!

But worship usually involves some singing, and even those who don’t like to sing must sometimes feel the impulse to burst into song. Singing is the movement of spirit in our bodies to unite word with breath and muscle to express ideas and feelings that can’t easily be expressed in other ways.

When Mary accepted the difficult and amazing news of the Angel Gabriel, it makes sense to me that she sang a song. I can also understand why it was not only a song of joy and thanksgiving, but also one that called for food for the hungry and for the rich to be thrown off their thrones.

But by singing the song, Mary didn’t make God’s reign appear right then and there. Nor did Luke do so when he wrote the lyrics down many years later. Even the birth of Jesus didn’t end all pain or bring the reign of God to earth.

Or did it? In some ways, singing songs again like Mary’s remind us both that we have a lot of work to do to make the world right; and that in that moment of singing, in that act of worship, in that reminder of what we want, the reign of God is right here — Jesus is right here — in this moment, this breath, this sacred act of worship and remembrance. Another world is not only possible. Another world — the world that we want — is here, right now.

So this week, as Advent ends and as Christmas comes again, may we sing the old familiar carols aware that we are joining with Mary in her song of love and justice.

On Christmas Eve and for the rest of the season, we will sing. In those carols, we will feel again the hope that glimmers even in dark times; the peace that is present even in the face of conflict; the joy that comes even in the midst of life’s ups and downs; and the love of God that we experience in this song, this breath, and in this moment, both now and always.

Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.


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