It is the music that makes Advent and Christmastide so memorable for me. Of course, I like the fragrance of candles, things baking in the kitchen (little of which I produce), and the variegated lights all around. Yet, it is the music that holds primacy in my memory and spiritual practice.
Yesterday I made the trek to Oklahoma to spend some time with the Marshall clan, so I had time to listen to lovely carols, Gregorian chant from favorite monastic choirs, John Rutter’s Gloria, parts of Handel’s Messiah, and a few selections from the Canadian Brass for good measure. (This ensemble has a great tuba player, whom I keep recommending to my colleague Dick Olson for his own improvement!) Even though the instruments are great, choral music remains my favorite expression of the season’s glad tidings.
As we move toward the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we turn to one of the alternative readings, Psalm 89. It opens with these words:
I will sing of your steadfast love; O LORD, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim
your faithfulness to all generations.
As St. Augustine reportedly wrote, “When we sing, we pray twice.” The embodied spiritual practice of singing, where breath and word come together—as in God’s own activity of creation—call us to reflect on God’s new intervention in human history, coming as one of us. Even those who sit silent, with arms crossed during congregational singing, can usually manage to hum along with the memory-laden carols.
Several Christian traditions have released new hymnals in recent months, among them the Presbyterian Church USA and the Community of Christ. The latter group, located in Independence, MO, has written: “We believe what we sing and we sing what we believe.” The hymnal committee intentionally selected hymns that would assist the church in singing its way into peace and justice. Hymns in different languages prompt the church to humility as they fumble through unfamiliar words; hymns from around the world remind them of the church’s expansive reach.
As I write, I am listening to a young woman’s voice singing the Magnificat, Mary’s Canticle of wonder and astonished joy. She echoes the Psalmist’s gratitude for God’s merciful attentiveness across the generations. Luke’s Gospel models her poetic declaration of faith after the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and clearly it begs to be sung! We also can sing her song of love in the many renditions that the centuries provide. It will be good for our souls.
Molly T. Marshall