Singing By Heart
A reflection shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, December 27, 2020, the first Sunday after Christmas.
Text: Luke 2:22-40
Most people who share Christian faith will say they have a favorite Christmas carol, song, or album—or maybe several! I am on the “several” team…
Music, for many of us is at the heart of our spiritual lives.
Songs are experienced and shared in many ways, they come in different styles and with different vibes.
And songs are part of our faith tradition from the ancient of days. Miriam and brother Moses sang a song of victory and joy at God’s liberating power to bring Israel out of slavery. There are the whole books of Lamentations—five dirges mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the Song of Songs—the love song to rule all others! And of course the Psalms are songs—“the hymnbook of the Bible.” There is the so-called “Christ hymn” found in Philippians 2. And in the Gospels we have Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s song (Blessed be the God of Israel who comes to set us free… UMH 209). In both Matthew and Mark we are told that Jesus and the disciples sang hymns (Mt 26:30, Mk 14:26). And today we get yet another song. The song of prophet Simeon—“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The prophet Anna likely also had her own song of praise and proclamation, though that one isn’t included in the text.
The song (or canticle) of Simeon is found in our UM Hymnal (#225) though I doubt that many of us know it. For many in other parts of the Christians family, it is known well because it’s part of the liturgy of the hours, a closing song for night prayer or compline. For those who pray using the hours, Simeon’s song is as familiar as your favorite carol. It’s a song many know by heart.
Think about that phrase “to know something by heart…” What a line! Something that you know without having to “think” about it, to know something from a “heart place,” a part of yourself that is deeper and perhaps more integrated into your being… That’s the way much of our music is—and certainly for most of us, the music of this season.
As I read this story we’ve received from Luke today, I also found myself resonating with the image of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple for the religious rites. Lord, once we get out of this pandemic situation, I imagine there’s gonna be a run on folk bringing their little ones for the rites!! I always love this reminder that Jesus was raised up in the community of God’s people. Jesus was presented and circumcised as an infant—the Jewish rite of initiation into the covenant, made the annual religious pilgrimage with his family to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41ff.), and made a habit of going to synagogue on the sabbath day (Lk 4:16). No wonder he knew the scriptures and the songs of his faith. Anyone who knows a thing about child development is that what is learned and experienced in our earliest years are things that shape and form us and remain with us! And folk who know about human development generally know that things that are habitually repeated—words, actions, songs—become embedded in our DNA (I think of this as a unity, physical/spiritual/emotional).
People have joked with me over the years about how it seems I know all the words to the songs in the hymnal. The truth is that I was raised singing these songs and have sung them pretty consistently all of my life. And in this Christmas season, there are certain songs—some in the hymnal and others not—that I began hearing as an infant. The words and melodies reside deep in my being. Over the years, I have come to understand just now foundational the songs I was taught as a child and youth are to my understanding of God. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! If the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack! (Sacred Resistance!)... I am a promise, I am a possibility, I am a promise, with a capital “P” I am a great big bundle of potentiality! And I am learning to hear God’s voice and I am trying to make the right choices. I’m a promise to be anything God wants me to be… O God of the stars, the sun, and the moon, O God of the wind and the sea, though you’re everywhere, how amazing it is that you can be here with me… As a youth, the music of Jim and Jean Strathdee was central to my experience. And little did I know that one of our favorite songs to sing at camp—“I am the Light of the World”—was teaching me a version of Howard Thurman’s reflection often called “the work of Christmas.” The lyrics I sang at Camp Egan near Tahlequah, Oklahoma included, “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, with the kings and the shepherds have found their way home, the work of Christmas is begun… to find the lost and lonely one, to heal the broken soul with love, to feed the hungry children with warmth and good food, to feel the earth below the sky above!... to free the prisoner from all chains, to make the powerful care, to rebuild the nations with strength of good will, to see God’s children everywhere…. to bring hope to every task you do, to dance at a baby’s new birth, to make music in an old person’s heart and sing to the colours of the earth!... I am the light of the world! You people come and follow me. If you follow and love you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.”
These words, together with the words of Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Charles Tindley, and so many more are the ground from which all my understandings of God, other people, and my place in the world have grown. Singing seems to set the words in our spirits and to help them take root—Music helps us to “learn things by heart…”
It was a joy to receive again our children singing on Christmas eve—that piece from the 2018 pageant was wonderful! And it makes me newly give thanks for the ways that we continue to create space for people of all ages to sing—as our ancestors have done through the ages—to sing praise and glory to God for all of God’s tender mercies and beautiful gifts. I give thanks for the ways that we continue to value singing and music—not as entertainment, but as worship, as prayer, as praise, as a proclamation, as a way for Spirit to teach us the faith, to help it lodge more deeply in our being.
Thanks be to God for the best gift of all, Jesus, in whom all God’s promises are fulfilled, the one who teaches us not only to learn things by heart, to sing things by heart, but who takes residence in our heart and helps us have the courage to be truly led by heart…to free the prisoner from all chains, to make the powerful care, to rebuild the nations with strength of good will, to see God’s children everywhere…