They’re playing our song(s)
Many of us walk around with a song in our heads. It changes through the day. Sometimes it’s just the latest earworm, so you might find yourself humming along or even dancing in gangnam, gangnam style. It is better, though, when they are songs from the past evoked by moments, words, sounds, smells.
Some songs can take you back to a time and place. Usually our songs date us terribly: for example, a song called “Boys of Summer” takes me back to a terrific holiday I had with friends in 1984, though I think it’s fair to say most of the good music comes from the ’80s. Some of the more musically gifted among us are lucky enough to hear songs from the future… new songs and tunes just waiting to be played and recorded.
Perhaps you’ve been listening to the radio, something has come on and you have thought, “They’re playing our song”. The Honeydrippers’ version of “Sea of Love” is one of those for me: a bridal dance song.
They’re playing our song…
Christmas is a bit like that for Christian people. They are playing our songs and they are playing them everywhere and will be playing them everywhere for the next month or so. They are playing our songs in shops; they are playing our songs in the streets; they are playing our songs on TV; at big public gatherings; even in some lifts. Everywhere they are playing our songs… though maybe they are not playing them quite as much as they used to. Perhaps this, too, is a barometer of our times.
Nevertheless, many still know the most famous of these songs, or at least snatches of them – “Silent Night”; “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “Once in Royal David’s City”; “While “Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night”; “Joy to the World”; “O Come All Ye Faithful”… retelling the greatest story ever told.
They echo and allude to the material contained in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, particularly the great ‘songs’ recorded for us in Luke’s Gospel. Strictly speaking, of course, these are more like hymns, poems, proclamations and prophecies but they are important in that they give so much direction as to what is about to happen in Luke’s Gospel. They help us look backwards and forwards and locate the event of Jesus’ birth within the grand sweep of God’s redemptive purposes.
In Luke 1 we hear of the angel’s words to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Lk 1:13-17). Quite appropriately a note of rejoicing is struck. The parents are old and had most likely given up on any prospect of a child. So, it’s good news. But then the portentous words concerning the role of this child are pronounced: he will be like Elijah, turning many people of Israel back to their God in repentance; preparing them for the coming Lord.
We also hear the angel’s words to Mary in the context of another unexpected pregnancy (Lk 1:30-33). This pregnancy is not a reason for shame but a sign of favour. The child is to be named Jesus and Matthew helps us to see that this means ‘God saves’ (Matt 1:21). This is a royal child destined to reign over God’s house forever in fulfilment of the great promises made to King David. At this point the title ‘Son of God’ is most likely messianic but it is difficult not to draw a further conclusion when the divine agency of the Spirit is mentioned in respect of the conception.
A little further on Mary and Elizabeth meet and Mary proclaims the greatness of her Lord in words reminiscent of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 (Lk 1:46-55). Mary exalts in the humble circumstances of this birth and reflects upon the fact that the Lord she serves is the great reverser of circumstances, who can lift up the lowly, bring down the proud and mighty; who can satisfy the hungry and send the rich away empty. Mary then takes the note of fulfilment already struck, beyond the promises to David, all the way back to promises made to Abraham.
Further still and, at the birth of John, we hear from John’s father Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79). Once again ideas of fulfilment of promises are in mind as Zechariah reflects on God’s wonderful mercy and good memory as he ponders the implications of his son’s birth. The promises to both David and Abraham are mentioned this time. The explicit language of salvation and redemption is added as Zechariah speaks of how both of these will come about through the forgiveness of sins. In some wonderful words Zechariah reflects on the significance of all of this: it will be like the welcome light of dawn breaking on those who lived in darkness all their lives, a darkness brought about by the shadow of death; peace will be the glorious result.
Eventually the birth of Jesus himself is greeted by a multitude of angels who can only ascribe glory to God, announcing once more the possibility of peace for those upon whom the Lord’s favour rests (Lk 2:14).
The final ‘song’ in the sequence Luke records broadens the scope of the promised salvation explicitly, lest it might be thought that this was simply a local Jewish affair. In line with the hints already given about the promises to Abraham, Simeon talks about a salvation for all peoples, a revelation that will reach even to Gentiles (Lk 2:29-32).
Quite a program is outlined for us as readers of the Gospel and we go forward primed by these songs with great expectations as to how this story will unfold. The promises of God to Abraham and David will be fulfilled. The forgiveness of sins will be made possible and, as a result, salvation and redemption might be enjoyed by anyone whose heart is turned to understand. A King will be born who will reign over an everlasting kingdom. It only remains to see how all of this works out.
I am a reader who enjoys the story and sometimes find, when I come to sections of the Bible formatted like poetry or song, or even a speech, that I am tempted to skip or skim. This can be a serious mistake, especially in Luke’s writing when so much of the back story and commentary on the main story is given in speech, poem and song. They can feel frustrating because they sort of slow things down. But that is the point… to slow us down to ponder the significance of what is going on in the narrative as it hurtles forward. To help us look beyond the events to their significance.
Christmas can be a confusing time: lots of different messages as to what it is all about that are good, bad and downright ugly. We will be assailed by varying versions of what constitutes the Spirit of Christmas and so on. Far be it from us to focus on the events and miss the significance, but I guess it can happen. The songs can help us to stay on track – if only we will listen. The trouble is that they are so often around and so familiar that they tend to recede into the background as wallpaper music – that goes for both the carols around us as well as Luke’s ‘songs’.
There is abundant good news here: good news to be reminded of and good news to bring to the attention of others.
There is good news to give thanks for: Christian people serve a God who makes and keeps promises over the long haul; there is the offer of salvation from God’s judgement through the forgiveness of sins; there is the relief of dawn breaking following the darkness of a long night; the birth of the forever king of God’s kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ. The carols around us are hints and signs pointing us to the rich fullness of the biblical narratives and their accompanying songs.
There is good news to pray about – to pray for the many who will hear only muzak, a backing track to Christmas shopping, a nuisance busker, or a sweet, sentimental contribution to the Christmas spirit. So many can be so near and yet so far when these songs are sung. Perhaps we may have an opportunity with friends and neighbours to move from the songs to the story, using Luke’s songs to guide us as to how to understand what is going on
They might be playing our songs but there are no turf wars here. I am happy our songs are still being played with their hints and whispers of the great story recorded there for us in Scripture. And our great hope is that, in the merciful compassion of our God, many more will hear the carols and eventually think, “They’re playing our song”.
The Dr Rev Bill Salier is vice principal of Moore Theological College. He lectures in New Testament and Ministry.
Feature photo: Photogratis