Christmas Re-Imagined:
Songs of Radical Hope

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First Sunday of Advent • December 3, 2017
Recommended Reading: Luke 1:39-80

     Think about how much of the Advent and Christmas season is captured for our imaginations, not just in texts we read, but the songs we hear and sing every year. Nearly all of these songs contain a strong dose of hope. The Song of Mary we just heard is one of the greatest songs of radical hope in the Gospels. But let’s, take a moment to remember and imagine the context in which she sang it. She was a teenager, who was pregnant outside of marriage, which put her in danger of being stoned to death if this were discovered. Thank God, her fiancé, Joseph, helped her to keep that a secret and agreed to marry her anyway. But Mary had also had a vision of an angel who had said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will conceive and bear a son, and give him the name Jesus.... The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the holy one of God.” Well, that must have been a big surprise, especially for one so young, but Mary simply responded, “I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say.”[1]

     Later, while visiting her older relative, Elizabeth, who is also surprisingly pregnant after being unable to conceive for so long, they rejoice together in God’s goodness and Mary sings her song of thanksgiving and praising God for taking the side of the lowly and the hungry. Her song is filled with such hope and anticipation of a better day for all of Israel.

     This is not the only song we get in Luke’s Gospel, which is peppered with songs of radical hope. Take Zechariah, father to John, who would be called the Baptizer. At his son’s birth, Zechariah sang this song:

“Blessed are you, the most high God of israel – for you have visited and redeemed your people. You have raised up a mighty savior for us of the House of David…. Salvation from our enemies and from the hands of all our foes…[that we] might serve you without fear, in holiness and justice, in your presence all our days…. [begin singing] Such is the tender mercy of our God, who from on high will bring the rising sun to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[2]

Or later, when Jesus is brought to the temple to be dedicated to God, a devout and just man named Simeon, on meeting the child, sings: 

“Now, O God, you can dismiss your servant in peace, just as you promised; Because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the peoples to see – a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”

Or, finally, listen to the song the angels sing to the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth: 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

And who does God favor? Simeon’s song has already proclaimed that God’s salvation was for “all the peoples to see.” The threads running through all of these songs and proclamations are “you are blessed,” “you are favored,” “do not be afraid,” and “God is doing great things for you and among you.”

     But don’t these songs defy reality? How could they sing these songs of hope in a social and political context that appeared so hopeless? Jerusalem had been conquered by the Romans sixty years earlier and by the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people were suffering under the full oppression of the newly-declared Roman Empire. The people suffered under heavy taxation and an occupying army. The puppet Jewish King, Herod, was greedy, brutal, and unpredictable. Yet, Mary could sing to God, “you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty” and Zechariah could add that God would “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Were they delusional? Luke tells us they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Surely, we have our own experiences of having our hope boosted by the Spirit of God. But could it be that this was not just about the Spirit or faith? What if singing songs of hope actually contributed to giving them hope? What if the truth is that, without singing their hope, they would not have had the courage have children and believe in the coming reign of God? What if singing songs of radical hope was a way of living and of keeping hope alive? [pause]

     And what if this has been true for the whole of human history? Sure, there are times when we lose hope and fall into despair. But has there ever been a time when human beings completely stopped singing our hope? Can you think of any great movement of history that was not accompanied by songs of radical hope? I think immediately of the movement to abolish slavery and of Civil War in the U.S., which ultimately became a war to end slavery. Thousands of pro-Union and anti-slavery songs came out of that titanic struggle. One of the most popular songs among Union soldiers during the war was John Brown’s Body. The last verse goes like this: 

John Brown died that the slave might be free

John Brown died that the slave might be free

John Brown died that the slave might be free

But his soul is marching on!

And among the many songs that came out of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, I remember this one especially: “Freedom, O freedom, O freedom, freedom is coming, oh yes, I know.” Many who sang this and songs like it did not live to see a measure of freedom come to South Africa. But this gave hope to millions and as the author of the lyrics declared, “Regardless of the oppression, squalor or chaos that surrounds us, when we sing it we not only taste its promise of freedom, we live it, we are free!”

     How could we go on struggling and striving for peace and justice if we did not have hope? Imagine any anti-war movement without songs of protest and radical hope. Think of the Civil Rights Movement or struggles for liberation anywhere without music.

     Perhaps it is a part of what it means to be human that we compose and sing songs of hope. Our young seminarian, Scott Sprunger, made a very wise and relevant comment this week. He said “nothing we work for or accomplish is ever completely satisfactory.” I would add that, sometimes, our struggles for justice fail, and that can be downright depressing. Yet, we keep singing our hope and we live by hope, as Mary and Zechariah and Simeon did.

     My whole life long, I have been singing songs like this – and did not before think of them as songs of radical hope. Among the first songs I learned on the guitar were Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are A’Changin’. And later, when I was a leftist and union member, I sang others like “Solidarity Forever,” and “The International”:

Arise, you prisoners of starvation,

Arise you wretched of the earth,

For justice thunders condemnation,

A better world’s in birth.

Such songs have literally shaped my life. Diane will tell you that I tend to be generally way too optimistic. Isn’t optimism dependent on having hope for good things to come? Now, I can’t say for sure whether songs of hope have helped make me an optimist or my optimistic nature has led me to sing songs of hope or whether they are mutually reinforcing, but I can tell you that songs of radical hope have shaped the contours of my life, my thinking, and my acting in the world.

     And hope isn’t found only in songs of protest and struggle. In the face of a world filled with hatred and violence, a love song can be a song of radical hope and so can a playful or humorous song that helps us to fight against hopelessness and despair. Whatever songs bring us hope, we have to keep on singing them.

     Songs of radical hope are not just for the big historical causes and events. They are also for the struggles and travails of our everyday lives. Every Tuesday, I take my guitar and go down to sing with a couple hundred guests at the Hope for Our Neighbors in Need food pantry. It is one of the most rewarding things I do every week. I sing Gospel songs, freedom songs, folks songs, and hymns. Generally, I see a few of the guests singing along. But every week we end with the same song and with this song many more join in. It has become the theme song of the HNN food pantry: This Little Light of Mine. The guests sing and clap and smile and nod their heads. They listen carefully and follow along as I sometimes make up new verses, like “Wherever there’s injustice, we’re gonna let it shine…” or “Building a new world and we’re gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” This song lifts all of our spirits emboldens our hope. HNN is about much more than food – it is about hope.

       Our communal and personal songs of radical hope help us to see that God is always doing a new thing in our individual and collective lives, that God’s desire is for our well-being and not for harm, that God is always offering us salvation in ways we cannot always see or imagine, and that there is a better world in birth – that, in spite of appearances, the world is about to turn in new and surprising ways.

Wipe away all tears,

For the dawn draws near,

And the world is about to turn.[3]

 

[1] Translation from The Inclusive Bible

[2] Ibid.

[3] From Canticle of the Turning, Words: Rory Cooney, Music: Irish Traditional Folk Song, © 1990, GIA Publications, Inc. Onelicense.net # A-725898