Singing Christmas Carols Standing On Your Head

 

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt, Senior Minister
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
Bethesda, Maryland
Sunday, December 21, 2014
The 3nd Sunday of Advent

“Standing On Your Head and Singing Christmas Carols”

Luke 1:39-56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Maybe you saw the picture in yesterday’s Post: Two little boys in bathing suits on the beach in Brazil watching Santa Claus wade in the water carrying a surf board.  The temperature in Sao Paolo is in the 90s, the caption said.

We in the Northern Hemisphere – or at least I – often forget that for much of the world Christmas is a warm weather holiday.    

To look at our decorations and greeting cards and to listen to our songs, you would think that Jesus was born in the Swiss Alps, when in reality the birth of a Palestinian Jewish peasant boy had nothing to do with sleigh bells or warm cider or yule logs. Truth be told, the birth of Jesus is, in many ways, completely upside down from what we experience.

That’s why I like that hymn that we sang, “Carol Our Christmas, An Upside Down Christmas.”  A carol from New Zealand.  About a different kind of Christmas – “The snow is not falling, the trees are not bare, warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.”  It may be the only Christmas carol ever written about the beach.  The expectations are completely upside down.

The portion of scripture that we read this morning is also about an upside-down Christmas. The scripture we read is song that Mary sang when she found out she was going to have a baby.  Listen again to the words:

God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
God has lifted up the lowly; 
God has filled the hungry with good things,
God has sent the rich away empty.

That’s about turning the world on its head.

As Luke tells the story, this is not just the lullaby of one expectant mother. This is the powerful song of someone who expects the world to change.  This is not just a song of a biological pregnancy. This is the anthem of someone who sees the entire earth as pregnant with possibility. Mary is not singing a warm and fuzzy holiday feel-good tune.  This is the radical protest song of anyone who dreams of a different way of being.  

Mary’s song looks at hungry people and compares them to overfed, rich people.  It looks at oppressed people and compares them to greedy people.  It looks at those who feel low and left out and compares them to those who feel powerful and important. And Mary sings that God wants to turn the whole thing upside down. Mary’s song here in Luke is about a very different understanding of Christmas.

Today we are singing all of these beautiful carols with brass and choir and organ.  Christmas carols are so familiar, they tend to lull us.  But pay attention to the words. These Christmas carols aren’t all about comfort and joy.  They are also about transforming the world.

There are something like 75 wars taking place in the world today, and “Hark the Heralds Angels Sing” bravely speaks of “peace on earth.”  Stanza 2 of “It came Upon the Midnight Clear” has the same word of hope: It says for 2000 years the earth has been at war and can’t hear the love-song of peace.  These are not just pleasant tunes.  These are protest songs that should be sung at marches and rallies.

Millions of people live in poverty, and “The First Nowell” tells us that Christmas is God’s good news for the poor.  That is a song that should be sung in every corporate board room in America.

We live in a time of terror threats and cyber assaults and fear-mongering, yet “While Shepherds Watch their Flocks,” has a very counter-cultural reminder to, “Fear not.”  What if that were the theme song of every cable news network:  “Fear not.”

And think of some of the carols we are not singing today:

“Joy to the World,” which speaks of truth and grace, even in a world of falsehoods and meanness. 

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” with its concluding stanza that, “The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to all."

And the French carol, “O Holy Night” with lovely lyrics that say: “Truly he taught us to love one another, His law is love and his gospel is peace.  Chains shall he break for the slave is his brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”

In thinking about these Christmas carols, Rolf Jacobson, a Professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul has said, “Throughout the ages, God’s people have faced oppression. And in the face of that oppression, God’s people have sung God’s songs of resistance.”[i]

So today, we sing.  And we sing not just songs of silent nights and dancing sugar plums.  We sing songs of a world being turned upside down. With Mary, we sing songs that see a world of war of want and oppression and injustice and shout out with protest. 

So, today, sing!  And tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Sing!

Sing of comfort and joy. And sing of discomfort and change.

Sing songs that turn the world upside down and set it aright, as it should be.

Sing songs of peace.

Sing songs of hope!

Sing songs of love!

Sing songs of justice!

 

[i] From workingpreacher.com.  Much of my thinking on the radical nature of Christmas carols is due to this piece.