I love the Christmas stories from scripture. But to be honest, in my rational mind I find the familiar scriptures to be hard to believe in sometimes. The angels with their wings aflutter, shepherds with their hearts aflutter. The wise men traveling from far away, guided by starlight to encounter something new and necessary. A young woman believing the impossible was true, a young man believing she was telling the truth. These things stretch credulity, it’s true. But these are not what I find so hard to believe. It’s what the prophet Isaiah says:
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
A day when the world would be ruled by peace, with the tramping boots of war gone forever, the terrible and martial drum cadence of death silenced forever. Justice for all those who cry out for it, righteousness for the whole world. And what’s more that this state of blessedness will not come to be because of a great and herculean striving on the part of humanity, nor from a great enlightened revolution, nor even from some terrible bloodletting war so awful that humanity would be shocked irrevocably into peace, an entire species hitting rock bottom in our addiction to war. No, the promise is that peace shall be given to us like a gift, like grace, undeserved, but that the zeal of God’s love for us will make the promises real.
And at this, my reason balks. The distance is so vast between our reality and God’s promises of peace served up on a platter, the distance is so vast that my reason rebels against believing God’s promises are real. When I try to imagine in my mind what the fulfillment of these promises would be like, the images I can form have the look of one of those old Claymation cartoons they show around Christmas. Familiar and beloved and wonderful, yes, but lacking in the unblinking unforgiving reality of a grainy dash-cam video or the evening news.
I love the Christmas stories from scripture, but sometimes in my rational mind I find it hard to believe in them. Except, that is, when I am singing. There is something about singing our stories that makes them come alive in my heart. I can’t give an orderly account of what it is about singing that makes a story come alive inside of me, but it’s true. When we sing Comfort, Comfort O My People, I can feel that coming peace.
Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ’neath their sorrow’s load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.
My rational mind cannot contain God’s promises, yet when we sing together, those promises become embodied, they become real in our bodies. Our chests rise and fall together, our breathing comes deeply and all at once, a whole host of God’s people filling lungs full to the brim so that they might overflow with song. When we sing, we breathe together, we con-spire together to bring the promises of God into the world together.
We sing together and our hopes become real. They become real in us, and because they are real in us they are real in the world. For a moment, we are gathered into something greater than ourselves, a sound and music larger than any by ourselves could produce, a purpose larger than we could accomplish on our own, a truth that is larger than the scope of the mind’s comprehension. To sing the hope of Christmas is to birth into being in the world the hope of the scriptures. To sing the hope of Christmas is to engage, is a kind of incarnation in miniature. It is an in-breaking of the holy into the ordinary-ness of the world.
To sing together the songs of Christmas, the songs of hope, this is among the highest and holiest tasks entrusted to the church, that of keeping alive that hope in the world which can only exist when it is sung into being. The world is much in need of a people of hope. Not merely people who have hope, but people who live hope, people who are hope because they bear it in their bodies in song. The world needs people who sing their hope into being, because people have forgotten how to sing.
It may be hard to believe the words of the prophet Isaiah, that there will be peace everlasting. For who has seen peace over the whole world, really? Well, I’ve seen peace. I’ve glimpsed it in you.
In you, Old South Church, to you has been entrusted much of the work of singing into being that which is needed by the world. In the days immediately following the Marathon bombing, the city needed a healing word, it was people of faith who knew that the healing the city needed, the hope the city needed was in people. Not merely people who had hope, but people who lived hope, who were hope, who sang it into being. We Christians stood at the corner of Boylston and Arlington, alongside our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we stood beside the barricades, as close as we could get to the finish line without crossing into a crime scene, and we sang into being what was needed. Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now, with every step I take, let this be my solemn vow, to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
The world is in need not merely of people who work to make the world a better place, but who sing of a better world so sweetly, that at least for a moment, at least for a breath, at least for a chorus or refrain, that world lives within our hearts. When we sing the songs of Christmas, when we sing of God’s promises, think of it like licking cookie batter off a spoon. It may seem childish, and the no-funigans may warn you about the dangers of raw eggs, but friends, it’s just a taste of what is to come, but it is so sweet. Won’t you take a taste? Won’t you sing a bit with us?