Psalm 100; Luke 1:39-49
The Rev. Tom Herbek
December 23, 2018
Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This passage has been named “The Magnificat,” and much beautiful music has been composed about this passage. We each have opportunities to magnify God, to allow our souls to expand and be filled with God’s presence. It is up to us to make God’s presence known, to sing our own song of God’s presence, God’s love, and the joy of God’s presence in us and in our world. Mary was surprised by God’s presence, and it took her awhile to accept it, to be able to get to the point where she could magnify the Lord. Her cousin Elizabeth helped Mary to accept her extraordinary role, to sing her song of joy.
The truth is that no one is ever really ready for Christmas. God’s grace comes to us when we let our own expectations go, when we allow ourselves to sing our song in the fullness of the moment. That is when the joy gets in.
When a child is born, there is great rejoicing and songs of joy are in loving hearts. But the songs of joy begin even before that; they begin with the sense of wonder at being blessed. The cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, are both filled with joy in Luke’s gospel, and both express their feelings of blessing and joy.
There is a tribe in East Africa in which the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth, nor even the day of conception as in other village cultures. For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind. Aware of her intention to conceive a child, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together. After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song. After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph or in rituals and initiations. This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.
— Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart
Each of us can have our own song, as well. And each of us can express our joy as we sing it– for each of us can sing. Even if we are not very good at carrying a tune, we can still sing. Somehow, we have learned that only those who have beautiful voices should sing. This is learned behavior, not the way God created us.
If you ask a class of four-year-olds who can sing, the entire class will raise their hands. Try it with nine-year-olds and 2/3 will raise their hands. Ask it of 19-year-olds and only 1/3 will raise their hands. We must all unlearn this hesitancy to sing. We must all learn to sing our songs again.
Singing comes from the heart, and it has little to do with the technical proficiency of the voice. Especially at Christmas, we must sing with joy from our hearts. Somehow, we must let our voices capture the heart sounds within us, the joy of God’s blessings around us.
The writer and theologian Kathleen Norris wrote in her book, Dakota, the following:
I still value music and story over systematic theology– an understatement, given the fact that I was so dreamy as a child that I learned from a movie on television that Jesus died. Either my Sunday school teachers had been too nice to tell me (this was in the 1950s), or, as usual, I wasn’t paying attention. I am just now beginning to recognize the truth of my original vision: we go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.
Music can have a transforming effect on all of us. Music can bring tears to our eyes.
But we must sing our own song, not someone else’s idea of what our song ought to be. Kent Nerburn describes the regret of one of his professors:
I once had a professor who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics, where the work was secure and the money was predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glissando and then, abruptly, stopped. “Do what is in your heart,” he said. “I really only wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.”
Don’t let this be your epitaph at the end of your working life. Find what burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and you will be at peace. Take a job instead of finding a vocation, and eventually you will find yourself saying, “I’ve only got thirteen more years to retirement,” or “I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.”
We all owe ourselves better than that.
-Letters to My Son
But he then describes another teacher of his:
I thought of an image a teacher had once offered me. God, he said, is like a great symphony in which we must all play our individual parts. None of us can hear the whole; none of us is suited to play all the parts. We must be willing to accept the limitations of the instrument we have been given and to offer up our voice as part of the great and unimaginable creation that is the voice of God.
In this sense, we are all musicians, whether we can point to skills in music, or not.
Nerburn goes on to describe a conversation he once had while traveling in Canada:
I once had a conversation with a woman while I was on a train traveling across Canada. She was a musician- a violinist- who, as a child, had performed with major symphonies in America and Europe. She had been a prodigy, one of those rare individuals who seems to have a talent that comes from somewhere far beyond the realm of normal human affairs.
In her early twenties she had suddenly abandoned the violin in favor of the viola, the deeper-throated, less-celebrated cousin of the instrument on which she had already achieved such stunning success. It seemed an odd decision to me. She had established a promising career as a violinist; the repertoire for the solo viola is limited; and the part assigned to the viola in most musical compositions is far less significant and complex than that created for the violin.
Why, I asked her, would you turn away from an instrument of such color and vibrancy, so favored by composer and revered in the orchestra, and turn to so quiet, recessive, and generally overlooked and underappreciated an instrument as the viola?
Her answer was simple and direct.
“I like its voice,” she said. “It’s more me.”
This woman was happy just to play her part, then recede as the music was taken over by the more dramatic, more flamboyant instruments in the orchestra. She knew that it was more important to play from the fullness of her being than to seek fame and favor for something that did not come from her heart.
-Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace
And when we first discover the possibilities of music within us, it can change us dramatically. In the movie, “Music of the Heart”, Meryl Streep’s character begins a string program in Harlem that transforms an entire generation of children. And in the movie from France, “The Chorus”, a boys’ school of incorrigibles is transformed by the beginning of a boys’ choir.
Music can put us in touch with a level of reality that we never knew was possible, in us and in our world. We never know where the music that moves us will originate, and we never know what music might be within each of us.
In 1722, the Town Council of the City of Leipzig was looking for a new cantor in the School of Saint Thomas and organist for the church of St. Thomas. The Council searched for this new person, and selected one who, three weeks later, turned them down. They then contacted their second pick, and he too turned them down. They decided, as one member of the council subsequently wrote, that “since the best man could not be obtained, a mediocre one would have to be accepted.” The third choice they hired, the “mediocre” candidate, was Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach played from his heart. In our own way we are all gifted in our musical abilities; we must allow our hearts to sing. The joy that we feel at Christmas, the blessings of God for us and all around us allow our hearts to sing. Let us be like four-year-olds, believing that everyone can sing, each in our own way. And no one can sing our song in the way we do.
We must not allow anyone or anything to keep us from singing our song, to keep us from hearing and responding to the music of our lives. We are each chosen to be involved with God, magnifying the presence of God in our world, making clear and joyful noise through that singing of our own very special song.
Anne LaMott describes the story that God has been trying to teach us for generations:
I heard something a few years ago that would have completely changed my life had I learned it as a child. It was at my church, where I was teaching my Sunday school class of two teenage boys, both with rough skin, one slightly younger boy, and a little girl with elaborate and charming buckteeth, too young for braces.
That day I was teaching my one good message, that we are loved and chosen as is, fearfully and wonderfully made, with love and awe, perfect and fragile. We are lovely as sparrows, and all sparrows are sweet. No one thinks, “That sparrow is kind of a loser, and boy, is that one letting herself go.”
I know that all teenagers believe they are intrinsically defective, so that was why I brought up sparrows and friends. I asked the class if any of their best friends had acne, glasses, or problems at home, and if that made them love the friends less. Of course not.
I asked them to say, “I have value,” and both teenagers did so with mortification. The younger boy, not yet destroyed by hormones and society, said it as calmly as if announcing he had ears.
I turned to the little girl, expectantly. She said, “I has value!” I asked her to say it again, “I has value.”
I has value. I want to get that tattooed on my forearm.
As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too. While you might think it’s a trick, having affection for one’s goofy, crabby, annoying, lovely self is home. This has been my meager salvation. That we are designed for joy is exhilarating, within reach, now or perhaps later today, after a nap, as long as we do not mistake excitement for joy. Joy is good cheer. My partner says joy and curiosity are the same thing. Joy is always a surprise, and often a decision.
But I don’t want my life’s ending to be that I was toxic and self-righteous, and I don’t know if
my last day here will be next Thursday or in twenty years. Whenever that day comes, I want to be living- insofar as possible- in the Wendell Berry words: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
-Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
Mary got it. Mary has value.
Perhaps this Christmas, the music of joy will move us in ways we never expected, and we might find our soul magnifying the Lord, singing our own special song, and saying clearly what God has been trying to tell us and hear us say: “I has value!”
May we sing our song of life joyfully, learning a little more each day about the joy of knowing: I has value!