In the Meantime, III: I Long for Alway!

HomeIn the Meantime, III: I Long for Alway!
December 11, 2022

In the Meantime, III: I Long for Alway!

Passage: Isaiah 9:6

Praise God for the gift of music. Our scripture passage for today is brief, it's one verse long, and it is one you will know from every beloved Christmas Season.

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called
mighty God,
everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.

Music speaks the unspeakable, says the unsayable, and names the unnameable. There is something about melody rising up to the rafters that reaches a deeper place within us where our hearts swell, and our pulse races, and we are connected to the ineffable.

Victor Hugo says, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”[1] In that way, the melody already performed the sermon today. The voice raised already preached the Prince of Peace. The familiar musicality already moved you that much closer to the divine. So, my work here is done, even before it begins.

One person put it this way: music hovers between spirit and matter… between thought and phenomena.” [2]

Another says, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels: in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to us is felt to be so divine…music leads us to the edge of the Infinite and lets us gaze into that.”[3]

Another says, “Music is a continuous miracle that with every step accomplishes the impossible.”[4]

So, here we are, amid a miracle, the impossible made possible, the speech of angels hanging in the air, the Incarnate-God alive within us.

The ancient One, the Christ child, long foretold, sings us toward the very edge of the Infinite, wrapping us in the ancient hope of the indwelling presence of our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Music bears us toward the very edge of our longing: our longing for another way, another time, our longing for reconciliation or safety or thriving, our longing for this or that to be the way it was or the way it could be or the way it will be or might be. Music bears us toward every kind of hope, wistfully demanding that we stand in the already-not-yet of the kingdom of God. Music places us betwixt and between, waiting.

Especially on a day like today, in the season of Advent, when winter circles round and nostalgia hems us in, and our personal and collective struggles feel uniquely impossible, and we find ourselves again waiting.

Music transports us, moves us, carries us into the future, and lets us equally feel homesick for days past, even as we hold dear this very moment, here, exactly where we are. What I love about this piece Lisa Bond chose for us today is that, it unites us across so many centuries and so many cultures, and helps us to remember that, in every time and place we have been people, who long for God and who long for God’s way.

Today’s text is influenced by the most ancient promises from Isaiah on which we hang our Christmas hopes, six, seven, eight centuries before Christ. The people of Isaiah’s day had their own struggles—wars and rumors of wars, illness, infighting, injustice—their story can so easily be our story when we open our ears to it.

Then, we move centuries ahead, to the story of the Christ child himself, two thousand years ago, and there the text lingers, telling us that familiar sacred story with word and melody.

Then, unexpectedly, we take a turn north. As Christianity meanders its way  from Bethlehem to Rome to Germany and then to the Nordic lands of Northern Europe, this piece of music comes alive, in what was likely the Medieval Era, and then passed down generation to generation.

A few centuries after that, it was collected up into a book of Christmas carols by a priest in Finland who longed to log the songs of his own childhood and partnered with a publisher across the Baltic Sea in Sweden in order to catalog, and distribute, and preserve the melodies he held so dear.

But the journey did not end there. For years, the hymnal was held in the hands of Finnish Catholic school children, but as the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe it fell into disuse.

In the late 1800s a copy was unearthed by the British ambassador to Sweden who found it during his years of service and carried the hymnal home to London.

He handed it over to two friends: a scholar of hymnody and an expert in medieval melody, and they popularized these songs, this time in English and Latin taking a few artistic liberties along the way to bring us classics like Good Christian Men Rejoice and Good King Wenceslas, melodies that now ring out in shopping malls and on radio stations every November and December.

The texture of this story lives almost invisibly among us, but somehow came to life across oceans and cultures and centuries we have never known. Just a few decades ago, a Peace Studies major from California came across that 19th century British collection and published his own rendition in 2012, only for it to be performed ten years later here today, in our sanctuary amid our own hopes and dreams for a new joy to arise among us.

I don’t know what new joy you long for today. I don’t know what stands in the way of such joy. But this piece of music reminds me that our own longing is shared across all these decades, centuries, millennia, all of us standing between what is and what might be.

We hold today’s melody and story with the ancients, and here, our deepest longings meet, and with them across time and place, we see again through the unspeakable experience of music, this God in whom our hope relies.

May the melody continue to find you,
and may you know the deep peace held within.

[1] Hugo, Victor Marie, William Shakespeare, 1865.

[2] Heine, Heinrich, Letters on the French Stage, 1929.

[3] Carlyle, Thomas, 1899, p. 397, 1840, p. 99.

[4] Jankélévitch, Vladimir, 2003, p. 18.

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