Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Advent and Christmas being the great seasons of song for our faith, I always notice something particular during this time of year. Some of you, who through the entire rest of the year stand with faces stoic—and sometimes dour—holding your hymnals open before you but refusing to sing whenever we stand, suddenly start belting ‘em out at this time of year. That, plus this being our Lessons and Carols Sunday, got me thinking and researching about singing. Here’s what I found.
Scientists say that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,400 species of animal that are known to make intentional, repeatable, complex (that is, more than just a couple of notes) musical vocalizations. That is, there are about 5,400 species of singing animals. Of these, the vast majority live in trees (think birds and gibbons), a few live in the ocean (think whales), a very few live underground (did you know there are singing mice? There are.), and one, only one lives on the ground: us. Humans are the only singing terrestrial animal.
You see, evolutionarily speaking, singing is a costly behavior: not only does it burn energy and take up time that could be spent searching for food, it also allows predators to pinpoint the location of their prey exactly. Marine or arboreal species need not worry about this particularly, as they have a number of ways of avoiding predators, usually moving vertically to a level of their habitat that a predator cannot reach. Terrestrial animals, however, live always on the same level as their predators—there’s nowhere else to go—and so the evolutionary pressures on them have kept them either largely silent, or limited to vocalizations that are short, efficient, and necessary. Even birds that normally sing when they are in the trees stop singing and make other types of sounds when on the ground.
Humans, on the other hand? We have sung since the beginning. No one knows when exactly we started singing, but we know that the earliest collections of songs we have are religious in nature, among them the Psalms and the other songs of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Hebrew Scriptures as in our lives, the people sing when they are happy, when they are sad, when they are perplexed, or angry, or frightened, or defiant—and when they are scared. The Jewish Mary is an unwed teenager and is told that she will bear the son of God in a broken world, and the first thing she does? Sings the Magnificat. Zechariah’s son John the Baptist is born, and he knows that his son will live a hard life and die and an ugly death, and the first thing he does? Sings the Benedictus. The first century Christians are beset by strife from within and persecution from without, and what does Paul tell them to do? Sing. Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, he says. Sing in the face of terror.
Another thing about humans. Of all the singing animals, we are the only ones with a precise and shared sense of rhythm. Which may not sound like a big deal, but think about this: a precise sense of rhythm is the very thing that allows us to sing together. Two birds might sing at the same time, but without a shared sense of rhythm, they’re just singing next to each other. Whales might sing to each other, but they can never sing the same song at the same time.
But humans? Because of our sense of rhythm, 400 of us can sing a Christmas carol at the same time. And when a room full of people sings together, they don’t just sing together, they start to breathe together, too. And if the rhythm is strong enough—Jack, if you play that drum powerfully enough—studies show that our hearts will literally start to beat at the same time as well. And if we’re singing together and breathing together and our hearts are beating together, then it’s like we’re one body—and you know who’s body it is. In Advent, we wait for that tiny baby body of Christ to be born, and when we sing, we become the very body we’re waiting for.
Most species fall silent and get small when danger approaches, and hope it passes one by, but us? When danger approaches, that’s when we start to sing. We start to sing, and we become large. The world would say that we sing these carols because we’re happy, we’re full of joy. It says that these songs are some of our very most beloved because we just feel so happy when we sing them. Well, maybe.
But I think we’re singing, doing lessons and carols, for another reason. I think we’re singing because the wolf is at the door. Isn’t there someone in this room being stalked by cancer? Isn’t there someone else backed into a corner by depression? Aren’t there single mothers raising children alone in Boston tonight. Mothers whose Josephs did not decide to stay with them? Won’t someone come to this sanctuary tomorrow and spend all day here because he has nowhere else warm to go? Don’t our tax dollars—yours and mine—go to stalk the world with war?
And so we stand up, and we breathe in deeply, and the breath we breathe is not air but the Holy Spirit, and we become one body with one heart, and we start to belt. And we are not silent, and we are not small, and we are not alone, and we are not afraid.
The animals hide from their predators. We sing to that which stalks us, for though we are terrestrial, our song is celestial and we sing with the voice of the angels, we sing with the breath of the Spirit. We sing, “Predators, here we are. Predators, bring it on.
Come, Hunger, and we will fill you up.
Come, Loneliness, and we will sing to you of Emanuel, God with us.
Come Death, for Hark, the Herald Angels sing that Christ is risen with healing in his wings.
Come, Depression, and we will sing ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’ and we will hold that long “o” until you are no more.
Come, Power, and we will sing to you that the first Noel was to poor shepherds.
Come Despair, and we will sing joy to your world.
Come, War, and we will sing you to sleep.”
5400 species that can sing in the trees and the oceans. They all sing alone and fall silent when danger is near.
Just one. Only one that stands on the earth, with the breath of heaven in its lungs, with hearts beating literally at the same time. Only one that can sing together and only one that dares to sing more loudly the worse the danger gets. Just one.
The wolf is at the door, the world needs the body of Christ to be born. So come, all ye faithful, and sing.