This past Sunday was one of the high-holy days of the year at CMC – Music Sunday of the Advent/Christmas season. Children began the service with a sampling of music they had shared the night before for the Christmas play, the choir sang the songs they carefully rehearsed this fall, instrumentalists added their wordless language of beauty, and everyone present had plenty of opportunity to participate in the full choir, a.k.a., congregational singing. And it was a full house. As far as I can tell, that service and Easter are the best attended of the year.
This Advent I’m appreciating the opportunities to reflect on my recent learning tour to Israel/Palestine and one of the things I understand in a deeper way as a result of that trip is the power of singing in sustaining the soul. I didn’t grow up singing four part harmony and still mumble my way through it at times, but I love being in the company of others who carry me along. When you travel with a group of Mennonite pastors, you end up singing more than your average civilians. During those two weeks we sang blessings for meals and benedictions to end the day. But we also sang with Palestinian Christians during a worship service. We sang a blessing for Mennonite Central Committee workers who are daily surrounded by trauma and violence. We sang right outside the walls of a major detention center, a place where Palestinian youth and adults are held as political prisoners, the vast majority for nonviolent offenses, subject to all kinds of dehumanizing treatment. “The best and the brightest of Palestine are within those walls,” our guide told us, himself having been imprisoned on five different occasions.
What became clearer to me during those times was that when we sang, it wasn’t so much that we were singing about something: singing about love, singing about healing, singing about hope. Rather than singing about hope, it felt much more like we were singing as hope. We were singing not so much about freedom as the singing itself became an act of freedom. The songs weren’t so much about love as they were acts of love. Through these songs I understood better how the Civil Rights participants must have felt, and continue to feel, when they sing, “We shall overcome.” It’s not merely an expression of what one hopes happens in the future, although it certainly is that. It is itself an act of overcoming. An act of choosing hope over despair, expression over silence, community over isolation.
When the people come out to John the Baptist in the wilderness, they ask, “What then should we do?” When you don’t have the power to physically break down concrete walls, when you can’t right the injustices you witness, what can you do? Sing! Sing as if your life depended on it, because it might. Sing because you can, and even if you can’t do it well, sing because you’ve chosen to surround yourself with people who sing.
This Sunday, Christmas Eve, and in the Sundays to follow, we will continue to sing. We sing about the coming of Christ, but the singing itself embodies Christ’s coming to us. We are more fully human, and more divine, more Christ-like, when we sing, and can’t nobody take that away from you.