Sing, Sing, Sing
December 28, 2003
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When World War I erupted in 1914, launching the first great European war of the 20th century, soldiers on both sides were assured they would be home by Christmas to celebrate victory. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
The men on the fronts did not get home that Christmas…or the next Christmas, or the next, as the war dragged on for four years. During that time 8.5 million men were killed, with hundreds of thousands more injured. The "war to end all wars" took a horrific human toll and transformed Europe.
However, on Christmas Eve in 1914 one of the most unusual events in military history took place on the Western front. It was a very cold night. Looking over the trench, the British soldiers saw German soldiers holding up lanterns and Christmas trees. Within moments of that sighting, the British began hearing a few German soldiers singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up all along the German line as other soldiers joined in, harmonizing.
British troops immediately recognized the melody as "Silent Night" and began to sing along. One by one, British and German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into no-man's-land, the small patch of bombed-out earth between the two sides. There was an undeclared truce and peace had broken out.
Frank Richards was an eyewitness of this unofficial truce. In his wartime diary he wrote: "We stuck up a board with 'Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw off their equipment and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans."
That night, former enemy soldiers sat around a common campfire. They exchanged small gifts from their meager belongings - chocolate bars, buttons, badges and small tins of processed beef. Men who only hours earlier had been shooting to kill were now sharing Christmas festivities, showing each other family snapshots, and singing Christmas carols together.
This amazing story is one that is well known to many, particularly after the history channel’s program about it last week. How awesome it must have been—a welcome silence from guns and shouting, from death all around, this singing of carols, joining of enemies as friends.
Singing is also one of the things that joins together our whole culture during the Christmas season. I really think that, as a society, we do more singing at Christmastime than any other time of year. Carols are playing in every store, elevator, and phone hold system. Songs sung in church are hummed and sung together by friends and families, by groups of carolers in our neighborhoods and hospitals. There are churches that host a “Sing-Along Messiah” where everyone can join in on Handel’s glorious work.
Singing brings us together—as a society, as friends, and as family. It breaks right through traditional religious lines. Christmas carols are sung together by church goers and atheists alike—especially in my family. Many in my family are atheist or agnostic, but they sing with gusto when it comes to “Joy to the World”, “Angels we have heard on high”, and even “Good Christian Friends”! We always sing carols at this time of year. Mom and I hunt for the most singable CD, then bake and cook (and eat more than we should)—all the while singing along with “Little Drummer Boy”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, and dozens of other songs playing on the kitchen CD player.
This year, some of my family watched hours of Christmas Eve television shows of Christmas carol singing and playing—a handbell concert, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, even the Presbyterian Church’s televised service of Lessons and Carols. Much of the time we sang along (sometimes aloud and sometimes whispered) and we were all pretty happy. We forgot briefly about each other’s annoying traits. We truly loved, and we forgave funny voices, bad attempts at harmony, and thwarted jokes about the Hallelujah Chorus. Singing drew us together. It didn’t matter that members of my family had celebrated four weeks of shopping and wrapping while I observed four weeks of hopeful and expectant waiting for God. It didn’t matter that some of us believe the holiday commemorates God’s breaking in on our world, and some think there might not even be a God. It doesn’t matter that some of us celebrate church Christmas and some cultural Christmas. The sacred and secular approaches to Christmas are brought together in song.
Singing is also a crucial part of the biblical story (and the lectionary!) for this holy day. The angels in Luke are singing. The psalms for the Christmas season all begin with “Sing to the Lord a new song!” The Prophets tend to talk about new things God is doing and is going to do, and how the people sing of them. And here we have Paul telling us—quite directly!—“With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” This is definitely one thing we can all do together.
I nearly did an experiment at the airport on Friday morning. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen to me if I tried this, so I kind of wimped out, but I was severely tempted. I thought I would just randomly begin to sing a Christmas carol while I was waiting in the gate area for two hours. You know, just strike up something relatively harmless like “Deck the Halls” and see if people would join in. Then maybe move on to a more overtly Christian song like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and see where that got me. I did hum quite loudly but couldn’t get up the courage to actually sing words out loud in the airport. It’s a good thing that’s not what the soldiers did on the battle field on the first Christmas Eve of World War I. Instead they had the courage to lift their voices, to walk out on the battle field, and exchange gifts with their enemies. That’s what I call clothing yourself in compassion, humility, kindness, patience, meekness, and love. Singing drew them together as human beings, as the chosen people of God.
It’s hard work to clothe oneself in compassion, humility, kindness, patience, and meekness. More often I think we cloak ourselves in these things—kindness and patience in particular. Now, I say “cloak” because—at least some of the time—it really is just a disguise. For example, some members of my extended family don’t really like each other—to say the least. Nonetheless, at holiday time we all get together and pretend that we like to spend time together. We cloak ourselves in kindness and patience, but that patience wears thin and the kindness tends to disappear as soon as the irritating ones are out of earshot.
Now, I know that not all families are like this, but I would be willing to bet that many families have at least one person or one sector that is less than enjoyable. How often do we cloak ourselves in kindness, humility, and patience and claim we are clothing ourselves? I cannot even number the times that is true for me. But the good news is that we are forgiven, and we forgive, and we do in fact love one another—for love is deeper than simply liking each other or being able to get along for an extended period in close quarters. Love is no substitute for kindness or patience, but it sure does help us forgive those things that get in the way of kindness and patience!
Love also helps us to sing. God has given us the ability to cross all kinds of lines with a simple melody. And in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, in the middle of all the frustration, the travel, the chatter, and the tearing of gift wrap, comes God. God has broken out into our world as a small child, and the angels are singing. The Word has come to dwell among us, and may it dwell in us richly. The very Spirit of God has come and is here and will always be, for the simple melody is one of love—and love binds all things together in perfect harmony. It doesn’t matter if your harmonizing skills are a little out of practice. It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t sing. Everyone can sing, because God has given us voices and songs.
These voices are given for singing of God’s glory and our amazement. The very first question of the Heidelberg catechism states that the chief end of human beings is to glorify God. In Luke’s story, glory and amazement abound. The glory of the Lord shone around, the angels were surrounded by the whole heavenly host, and the shepherds were amazed. Those shepherds went to find the child and they were amazed, for all was just as it had been told them. And on their way home, the shepherds glorified and praised the Lord, and who knows?...maybe they sang of the amazing experience for the whole journey. It probably didn’t matter whether they all had similar opinions before they went, or even when they were returning. It probably didn’t matter how they were dressed, whether they went to the synagogue as often as they should, whether they offered as many sacrifices as they ought, or how many gifts their children got at Hanukkah. What mattered was that they had an encounter with God and they lived to sing about it. Singing drew the shepherds and angels together in the presence of God, who was right in their midst.
It’s hard to see how this can work for us—in our divided world, where some eat plenty and some starve, some fight and others protest, some sleep peacefully while others lie awake wondering what new horror tomorrow will bring How are we supposed to sing together in the midst of all the talking and the suffering? Perhaps we ought to do what the soldiers in did in 1914 and what I wanted to do on Friday—just start singing and see where that gets us. That’s what the Taizé community has done—they just started singing short memorable songs and using them for prayer and praise. Now more than 100,000 people from over 100 countries visit the community in France every year, and hundreds of thousands more join in sung prayer services all around the world. The Taizé community’s one word for its ministry is “reconciliation”—and they seem to be doing a great job. People from all over the world are singing with one voice, and God’s chosen people—the holy and beloved ones of God—are singing and praying. Truly the Word is dwelling among us, the light is shining in the darkness, and many are trying to be the one body we are called to be.
The story of Christmas is an amazing one, one we have the privilege of replaying every year, of remembering, of celebrating. God in all God’s glory has come to earth and makes a home among mortals. And God has done it as a baby, not as a full grown king, not as an angel, not as some unseen force. A small child—a miracle in and of himself, not to mention that this baby is the incarnate Word of God. And there’s more good news from Paul: The Word dwells in us now—for God has come and is with us always—even to the end of the world. Paul prays that the Word will dwell in us richly, and that everything we do will be in the name of the Lord Jesus, who has come into the world to be its light—a light the darkness of the world cannot overcome. And so we sing. We sing of God’s love, we sing God’s glory, we sing all together as the chosen people of God. Indeed, we join our voices together with people of all times and places, with angels, and with the whole choir of heaven: Glory to God in the highest! Amen.