Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
From the Song of Zechariah: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us … to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
You are probably familiar with the tradition of a service of nine Lessons and Carols for Christmas Eve at Kings College, Cambridge, although the service actually goes back to Truro Cathedral where the bishop, Edward Benson, invented it pretty much out of the blue in 1880 as a way of encouraging congregational singing. The service, of course, tells the story of the prophecies and fulfillment of Jesus’ birth, and has become replicated in many different formats and times, often during Advent.
For the last several years, we have taken the Sundays of Christmastide as a chance to do our own version of Lessons and Carols, using the opportunity to explore some dimensions of the Christmas story that don’t usually get much attention. Two years ago, for instance,we focused on the fact that Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus themselves become refugees, fleeing the violence of King Herod by seeking asylum across the border in Egypt. That focus helped us to become even more aware that in serving the refugees of our own day, we are truly serving vicariously none other than the Holy Family.
Then last year, when everything was still entirely online, we observed what we called “The Feasts of Christmas,” acknowledging the usually overlooked holy days that fall during Christmas week such as the Feasts of St. Stephen and St. John, the Holy Innocents, and the Holy Name. It’s a rich week liturgically!
So this year, we are focusing on what we’re calling the “Songs of the Nativity.” If you read straight through the gospel of Luke’s telling of the nativity story in chapters one and two, one of the things that jumps out is that his version is a bit like a Rogers and Hammerstein musical: every scene seems to erupt into a song, whether it’s sung by Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the angels, Simeon, or Anna.
Now, the gospel writers were meticulous in the way they crafted their narratives, so with the inclusion of these six songs, Luke obviously wants us to pay attention to what he’s trying to convey with them. So just to give a brief overview, here’s what happens.
The gospel opens with the aged Zechariah seeing a vision of the Angel Gabriel while he ministers in the temple, and the angel tells him that his equally aged wife Elizabeth will soon bear a son to be named John. Zechariah scoffs at the notion, and as a result is rendered mute for his lack of trust. Meanwhile, Elizabeth does conceive, whereupon Gabriel makes another visit—this time to Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin—telling her that she too shall have a child. Mary then goes to visit Elizabeth, who sings the first of the songs (this one in praise of Mary) as the baby leaps in her womb in recognition of the child Mary herself is carrying. In response, Mary sings a second song of joyful liberation, recognizing that through her son God will “put down the mighty” and “send the rich empty away.” (And note that there is nothing meek and mild about that song, despite what the carols say! Mary is portrayed by Luke as more of a revolutionary activist than a wall flower!)
Anyway, Elizabeth gives birth, and then Zechariah steps up to back her when she insists to skeptical neighbors and relatives that his name is to be John, and suddenly Zechariah’s tongue is loosed and he sings the third song of the cycle, prophesying that his son John shall prepare the way of the Lord, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That’s the end of chapter one.
Chapter two begins with the familiar text we hear on Christmas Eve—the manger, angels, shepherds, and so on—significantly including a fourth song sung by the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those of good will.” Once all the hubbub is over, the story moves on to the naming and circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day, followed by his presentation by his parents in the temple.
There, they encounter another aged prophet, a man named Simeon, who (as the scripture says) had been “looking for the consolation of Israel.” Inspired by the Spirit, he sees in Jesus the fulfillment of that promise, and sings his own song of peace from the recognition of the coming of the savior. That’s now five songs. And then comes the sixth and last.
A pious, elderly woman named Anna comes into the temple, who like Simeon immediately realizes the significance of the moment, and so sings her own song of praise—except that unlike all the others, Luke doesn’t include her words. (That silencing of her, by the way, is depicted in the Nativity window there along the south wall of the church by the fact that she has her arms raised toward God in song, but her back to us and her face unknown.)
But despite that gap in the text, Anna, I think, gives us the key to the whole cycle of songs. The last thing we hear of her, is that having sung her song, she began “to speak of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She alone, of all those we have met, makes a point of sharing the news with others. She becomes, in effect, the first evangelist. And what I read into her eagerness to spread the news abroad is that through her, the responsibility for living into the message of these songs is passed on to us. It is now our turn to sing.
And what is the message to be? Well, throughout this cycle of songs, the word that comes up over and over again, is “peace.” Not peace in the shallow sense of a lack of conflict, but peace in that deep sense of living into the joy of relationship with God, with one another, and with creation that comes from an amazed, reverent respect and appreciation for the holiness of the Other. In Greek, the word is “irene.” In Hebrew, “shalom.” In Navajo, “hozho.” Whatever the word, it’s a grateful acceptance of the nature of our own creatureliness, and therefore our mutual interdependence, as God’s own creation.
And that’s what Anna hands off to us: an invitation that we are to be the ones who live into the path of peaceableness which this child Jesus will chart for us throughout his whole life. In short, the “Songs of the Nativity” are not sung for us as something we are simply to listen to passively, but rather as an active encouragement to become participants ourselves in the new pattern of human life which has been opened up for us in Jesus—“guiding our feet into the way of peace.”
So, with that said, let’s enter into hearing and responding to these Songs of the Nativity, and the invitation they extend to us. Amen.