Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matt. 24)
Today is a hinge between many things. As the First Sunday of Advent, it is in the first instance a hinge between the liturgical year that reached its conclusion last Sunday, when we celebrated Christ as all and in all in the Feast of Christ the King, and the new liturgical year that begins today, when we start telling the story of Jesus all over again.
Then again, today is a hinge between the past and the future. We both remember that Jesus once came among us as one of us, born of Mary, and we anticipate that Jesus will come again by bringing to completion the life that he has given us to live.
And so, today is also a hinge between what is familiar and what is unknown. The stories of Jesus of Nazareth we already know, but what our future in the Cosmic Christ might look like, we can only speculate.
And so, today is yet again a hinge between the comfort of what is traditional and the challenge of what is new and unanticipated. No wonder that the gospel lesson insists that the religious life is based on being open to and prepared for the unexpected: for God will always be just beyond out grasp, furtively disappearing around the corner, as the novelist Graham Greene put it. You will never find God, if you aren’t prepared for the unforeseen.
And so, you might say that today is a microcosm of the whole of our life in Christ: a life that is lived caught in the polarities of the familiar and the unknown, the reassuring and the challenging, the expected and the unanticipated.
But being pulled in two directions by those sorts of polarities has its own kind of good news: it means that our spiritual lives are first and foremost underwritten by a lifetime of growth and development. Following Jesus is not a once-for-all sort of decision, but a path, a direction along which we move day by day. We are always being invited into probing who we are, and who God is, at a deeper level, with new insight and experience to draw from.
And the truth is, that such indeterminacy gives us hope for the whole of our life, for it assures us that where we feel trapped, say, by the memories and traumas of the past, we can remain open with a sense of expectation and anticipation toward the future. We are as much a product of what we have yet to become, as of what we already are.
That’s why we begin the story of Jesus all over again today, at the beginning: not simply to repeat what we did last year, but to walk again in the footsteps of Jesus as if for the first time, meeting him as we are now–not as we have been in the past, but with the particular longings, worries, joys and concerns that we bring to this moment.
And so by way of highlighting this polarity of living within the tension of the comfort of the familiar and the challenge of the new, we are using this season of Advent as a time to share in the experience of congregational song in some new ways, that will both push us to experience God differently, and at the same time resonate deeply with who God already is for us. As Rabbi Heschel put it, “We must not be satisfied with what is too readily accessible but rather press on toward mystery. Religious music is an attempt to convey that which is within our reach but beyond our grasp.”
So let me share some thoughts about what our guest musician, David Poole, will be leading us in doing. First and foremost, a congregation is by nature a community of song, for the simple fact that words alone are inadequate to express the range of emotion that worship evokes within us. We need song to express ourselves.
And so second, as a community of song, we can most powerfully experience the common emotion to which music gives voices when we are aware of one another singing, and of ourselves singing in proximity to others—not buried in a hymnbook or bulletin, but alive to the musical moment itself. So much of the music we are singing today is so-called “paperless” song, something we can simply and naturally sing with one another and to God.
Third, the music we are singing today reminds us of the great wealth and diversity of music through which peoples around the world worship God. Our music comes from Peru, Israel, the Canadian Mennonite tradition, African-American spirituals, Gregorian chant—and yes, good sturdy Anglican hymnody itself. So it becomes a way of joining our voice, to the voices of the cloud of witnesses in all times and places who have raised the voice in sacred song, that communion of saints that we celebrated on All Saints Day.
Fourth, the music we are using today reminds us that as a Christian congregation, music is fundamentally something that unites us. There is not just this hymnal or that hymnal, not just this style or that style, but the one God whose praise we share in common with all creation. Take one of the communion songs we’ll sing later in the service, “Dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace). The text is from the Latin mass of the Roman Catholic Church, but this canon is sung across denominations (and by the way, it is included in both hymnals you have in the pew in front of you!). It is a song that reminds us that the longing for peace is a universal human prayer, and that giving voice to it, especially sung as a round, is a sign of our unity in song.
Fifth, we need to be reminded that worship calls upon a divine power that, if we are open to it and don’t let it be smothered by familiarity, will shake the very foundations of who we are. As Annie Dillard memorably remarked in Holy the Firm, worship is made up of “certain words which people successfully address to God without getting killed.” And music is the most powerful weapon we have for conjuring this power: think of how “We shall overcome” motivated the civil rights movement, or of how “We are marching in the sight of God” did the same for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Music is power, and we do ourselves a disservice if we close ourselves off to any of its possibilities. No wonder that so many of the psalms encourage us to “Sing to God a new song, [to] sing to God, all the whole earth.” (Ps. 96) For in such song directed toward God, God also comes to us, and meets us with unexpected and unanticipated might. As the theologian of church music, Don Saliers, said: “Music is the sound of the divine giving.” Amen.