It would not be Advent without singing. Even those of us terribly out of vocal practice (with no more diaphragm support than a leaky balloon) are prompted to lift our voices to share in the celebration of the world’s great hope. Those with ebbing memory find words long forgotten rising to their lips, reminding them of joy past and present—and the promise of a future, with hope. Preeminently during this season do the people of God sing their faith. Perhaps more than any decorative flourish it is the music of the season—the great oratorios and the time-burnished carols—that draw us toward expectant joy.
Isaiah 35 portrays the return of exiles with these accompanying signs: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened; the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a hart; and the speechless shall sing for joy” (vv. 5-6). Through the wilderness they shall pass on the Holy Way (v. 8), and God’s people shall “come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads…” (v. 10). This prophetic assurance was transformative in the eighth century; it remains so for faithful people who look to the consummation of God’s Reign. The promise is that singing is possible because they are accompanied by God.
Thomas Long has written an insightful work on the role of singing as a part of Christian funeral practices (Accompany Them with Singing), but I think his work has broad application for how we profess our faith. Music touches the deep places of our lives, and some theology can only be sung. Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes that listening to music can be “a shattering experience, throwing the soul into an encounter with an aspect of reality to which the mind can never related itself adequately…” Even more than listening, offering frail voice in joyous participation is an act of vulnerable courage. When we sing our faith, we do “pray twice” as Augustine put it.
What memorable hymnic phrases gather up your longings at this time of year? It could be the poignant “What shall I give him, poor as I am?” to the majestic “O Come, O Dayspring, come and cheer our spirit spirits by your advent here,” to the haunting medieval Divinum Mysterium:
Depths and heights break forth in singing, angels, saints make melody,
All dominions, every power sing, make new psalms of ecstasy,
Let no heart refrain from praising God, celebrate in harmony, forever and forever.
How thankful I am for the opportunity to praise through song. Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Molly T. Marshall
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