Grace Presbyterian Church
December 17, 2017, Advent 3B
The Cry and the Shout
We modern folk are accustomed to being deluged with song during the Christmas season. Indeed, if you ever go outside the walls of your own house at any point between the day after Thanksgiving (or earlier in some cases) and Dec. 25, one can, if not careful, be under a more or less constant barrage of songs connected, however loosely, to the occasion of Christmas – the sacred songs and carols we know very well, but also songs with no particular connection to the Nativity or the Christmas story. Everything from roasting chestnuts to snowmen to reindeer with incandescent noses, you can get overwhelmed with songs ranging from the sweet to the sappy and sentimental to the sometimes creepy (I’m looking at you, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).
By contrast, even we in the church have a tendency to be unaware of much song for the season of Advent (though I do hope that’s changing around here). In many congregations (as I am reminded by many of my colleagues in ministry), there is exactly one “song of the season” for Advent that is at all familiar: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
I’m going to hazard a guess, though, that even those congregations that consider it a familiar song of Advent haven’t always been terribly familiar with the whole hymn. It might have come as a shock last Advent, our first here with the new Glory to God hymnal, to find this hymn stretched out to seven stanzas, in contrast to the three that had been included in the previous collection, The Presbyterian Hymnal.
Perhaps the more curious among Presbyterian congregations noticed the short informational note at the bottom of the page, informing us that this hymn has its roots in a quite ancient practice of the church, dating back at least to the era of the great European emperor Charlemagne and probably farther back than that. Rooted in a practice of daily worship, these stanzas (or “antiphons”) were assigned to the seven-day period before the Vigil of Christmas (or Christmas Eve to us) as evocations of Old Testament passages evoking the longing of the people for a Messiah.
I’ve included some of this in the insert in your bulletin to keep this sermon from being any longer than necessary, but you can see that these verses draw on not just the book of Isaiah (a popular source of Advent readings) but four other different sources from Hebrew scripture, each one read as looking forward to a promised Messiah and evoking some aspect or characteristic of that Promised One. Their gathering together in the Middle Ages, and their assignment to the final week of the season of Advent, became a means of intensifying the essential cry of Advent: “Come, Lord Jesus!” As the prophets and sages of old cried out for the Advent of the Messiah, so we too, followers of Christ these many years later, also cry out for an Advent, a coming of our Savior not in a manger but in ultimate and unending reign of all God’s creation. Even in the moments we cannot articulate it, it is the unspoken and unspeakable yearning in the very heart of the one who seeks God.
Of course, that these O Antiphons (as they came to be known, since each one begins with the exclamation “O”) were formalized for liturgy probably around the reign of Charlemagne does create an interesting perspective, to say the least. As Holy Roman Emperors go, Charlemagne was one who tried to live up to the “Holy” part of that title – not by living a holy life by any means, but by inserting himself into the affairs of the church. Indeed, the whole body of what we now know as “Gregorian chant” was systematized under his influence, mostly to ensure that the churches in Charlemagne’s empire were all “singing from the emperor’s songbook,” so to speak.
That lofty origin sets these O Antiphons, and the more modern hymn we sing that was adapted from them in the 19th century, in a rather different social status than one of the other texts that is frequently sung during the season of Advent. While the O Antiphons evoke the words of kings and prophets and priests, the Magnificat is drawn from the words sung in Luke by an unwed woman, pregnant under what her community and maybe even her husband (if you believe Matthew’s account) considered to be suspicious circumstances. Maybe you remember how such a young woman might have been sent away to stay with distant relatives to deflect the scandal of such pregnancy? I wonder sometimes if that’s what was being done to Mary here, sending her off to escape the prying eyes and wagging tongues of Nazareth. In this case the distant relatives were Zacharias and Elizabeth, themselves looking forward to a new arrival after decades of barrenness. Maybe that’s what was happening here; let’s keep those embarrassing pregnant women off in the hill country, away from prying eyes and gossip.
Whatever it was, it was a far cry from the palaces of kings and emperors that produced the O Antiphons. It’s all the more remarkable a scene, though, as these two women, off in the hills, prophesy to one another. Elizabeth names the One in Mary’s womb as no less than, in her words, “my Lord,” and in response Mary sings out the brief but powerful words we know as the Magnificat, from the first word of its Latin translation Magnificat anima mea, which translates “my soul magnifies.”
This prophetic utterance operates differently than those O Antiphons. Where those stanzas sing about attributes of God – “O wisdom,” “O Immanuel” (or God-with-us), and so forth, Mary’s song is all about deeds; what God is doing, or more what God has done. God has looked with favor on lowly Mary; God has done great things for her; God has shown mercy from generation to generation. Then Mary’s song stops preaching and goes to meddling; God hasn’t just shown strength, but God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”; God has toppled the powerful (an emperor like Charlemagne, perhaps?) and elevated the lowly; God has fed the hungry ones and sent away the rich with nothing.
It’s a challenging text, if you pay too much attention to it. And for years certain corners of the church did their best not to pay attention to it. Instead of singing the Magnificat, brash and even a little subversive as it is, hymnals were filled with such carols as “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came,” where the focus is on Gabriel’s announcement from earlier in Luke 1, with Mary’s role limited to verse three, a not-very-Magnificat-sounding little stanza that tells us:
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
“To me be as it pleases God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify God’s holy name.”
Most highly favored lady, Gloria!
You notice just the hint of the Magnificat, but not enough to be dangerous. Or maybe the hymn “Once in David’s City,” with its line “Mary was that mother mild,” a description that smacks more of putting women in their place than any kind of real attention to how Mary acts and speaks in scripture.
I have no interest in forcing a choice between the only two Advent songs most people know. What must be said, though, is this: if we tune out the powerfully disruptive song of Mary, we are pretty likely to fall prey to the solemnized, imperially sanctioned tones that would point us to attributes of a high and distant God to keep us from looking for a God who breaks into humanity and upsets the order of things like empires. Both belong; both are needed.
Advent is not a passive season. It looks both backward and forward; it sees the degradation and sorrow of the world and still insists on hope; and it most definitely does not submissively endorse the way things are. When we have learned that, when we have understood what it means to wait in hope and expectation, we may finally have grasped the whole point of Advent. And when we’ve grasped that, we might be ready for Christmas.
For the God on High who comes and acts among us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1, 2, and 3); #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 4 and 5); #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 6, 7, and 1)