I Heard the Bells
We sing our faith. Hymns are some of the most important depositories of our theology. When everything else is long gone, the words that have been set to music remain. It’s a simple truth, that when words are put to music, they resonate more deeply and hold more staying power in our minds than the spoken word. I used to go visit an older woman in the memory unit of a health care facility. She could no longer remember her brother’s name, but she knew every word to her elementary school alma mater. When everything else is lost, the hymns stay with us. Because of that, hymns are the most important repositories of our theology- the hymns that we sing will most likely shape your beliefs more than anything else we do or say today.
For this reason, historically the Presbyterian Church has always reserved the final decision on what hymns can be sung to the pastor. The understanding is that since hymns are so formative in shaping our theology, the resident theologian should be the one choosing them, to ensure that theology, rather than music, drives our choices. If want to know what we really believe, what are the words written on our hearts, and what will come to mind when we experience crises of faith that are part of our faith journey, we would do well to listen to the hymns we sing.
Hymns have always been formative parts of our beliefs and worship services. The oldest passages in the Bible are all hymns, and hymns were often written for crucial moments in history, such as the song of Moses. And for many in the Bible, when something crucial happens, it brings the participants to song. This is especially true in first two chapters of Luke, which narrate the announcement and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. When the angel Gabriel announces the coming birth of Jesus, Mary bursts into song. And when they present Jesus at the Temple, a man named Simeon bursts into song. In the first two chapters of Luke, it seems like everyone is bursting into song. It’s like musical theater.
In today’s Gospel reading we have just such a song, from the father of John the Baptist, a priest named Zechariah. When John is born, Zechariah breaks into song, filled with the Holy Spirit. And his song has quite the story behind it.
Zechariah was a priest of the house of Aaron. He and Elizabeth are an older couple and childless. They live out in the hill country, but when his number is called up he goes and stays in the priests’ quarters in Jerusalem while he serves in the Temple. And while he is on duty in the Temple, the angel Gabriel shows up. They exchange the usual pleasantries of an angel-human encounter. Zechariah is terrified, the angel says “Do not be afraid,” etc. And the angel tells Gabriel that his wife will soon conceive and bear a son. Now Zechariah and Elizabeth are past the age that this kind of thing happens. And Zechariah makes a comment to that effect. And zip, Gabriel declares that Zechariah won’t speak until the angel’s predictions come true.
Now I think Zechariah gets a bad rap here. Zechariah isn’t a cynic. He just observed that the impossible was, well, unlikely. I have no doubt that Zechariah had read the Torah, and knew the story of Abraham and Sarah, how they were old and Sarah was “advancing in her years.” And he was a priest, if you had found yourself, somehow talking to Zechariah about his child-bearing woes, and brought up Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah would no doubt agree with you that it was an impossibility that God could make possible. But Zechariah had long given up on the idea that that impossibility was for him. You can imagine how that happened. How many times they hoped and prayed, how every month became a cycle of swings and misses. How they nurtured hope, even though each time was a little less likely than the last, and how at last it was too late. If you brought up Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah would no doubt agree with you that, “anything is possible” but Zechariah had long given up on something being possible for him.
Cynic or not, Zechariah made his observation to the wrong angel, I suppose. And Gabriel gave him some time to think about it. I don’t think this says anything bad about Zechariah’s character. It only suggests that when God speaks, we would do well to listen.
I don’t know what it was like to be silent for 9 months. One of the best sermons I heard in seminary noted how being silent could have been a gift, might have changed Zechariah’s relationship with his family, with his friends, and with himself. What I do know is that when Zechariah finally does speak, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and joy. Joy fills him, because his long-awaited child has arrived, and he is blessed by the miracle. And he makes his proclamation in song, declaring that God has raised up a mighty savior. The silence, and the miracle, have changed him. Having seen what he has seen, Zechariah now believes that something is possible for him.
And suddenly, Zechariah believes that a lot of somethings are possible. He was doubtful of the possibility of a small miracle. But now he is proclaiming big miracles. He’s talking about things that go beyond his small family, but talk about the salvation of the nation. He’s throwing around phrases like, “God has raised a mighty savior,” even though that savior hasn’t even been born yet. Zechariah is talking about the whole salvation of the people of God, and he believes that he has a part in it. Zechariah bears witness that our God is a God who accomplishes the impossible, and we are part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. As Zechariah puts it,
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace”
Zechariah has always believed that miracles are possible. What changes with the birth of his son is that Zechariah has come to believe that miracles are possible for him. And he starts proclaiming the coming miracles with the belief that he will be a part of the coming salvation. When Gabriel came to him with an outrageous claim, Zechariah hesitated to believe it. But now in his mouth are even more outrageous claims, The most outrageous claim, at least to my modern ears, is that God will guide our feet into the way of peace.
I say that it is the most outrageous, because I think that peace is the front on which we share the most cynicism. If you asked any given person in church in December if those promises of peace were really possible, we would all agree. “Sure, anything is possible.” But our hope is much like Zechariah’s before Gabriel shook him up. If pressed on any given thing that we expect to happen that will guide our feet into the way of peace, a long history of human failure have long taken away our hope that something might be possible for us.
The hope we proclaim in Advent cuts against modern realism – in which nothing can be done and nothing fixed simply because our system is too broken, our people too apathetic, our imagination too small. These things are true, but they are only true by force of habit. And in an era in which so many unprecedented things happen, when so many things have happened that seemed impossible only a couple of years ago, what’s to say that something isn’t possible now?
Let me ask you a question: Do you think Zechariah raised his son differently, knowing what he knew? Knowing who the child was to be, knowing what was now possible through him, do you think Zechariah taught him differently? He would almost have to, right. It’s very different raising your son with the glim hope of some potential end-times future that will be better, than raising your child with the expectant hope of something new coming to fruition.
If you actually believe that something is possible, you orient yourself very differently from when you don’t. And I guess there is a fundamental responsibility to believing that peace is possible. If peace is possible then we have to take peace processes seriously (even if they haven’t borne fruit for years), and not just joke that every aging politician takes a shot at securing themselves a legacy. If peace is possible we can’t call ourselves justified for building increasingly efficient machines of war. If peace is possible we have to spend more time learning how to build lives than we do learning how to destroy them. War is not the continuation of politics by another means – War is a failure, and can never be seen as anything else to a Christian.
It is often those who have seen war who know this most readily. It was Eisenhower who said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” If peace is possible, then the words that we hear in Advent, that music about the Prince of Peace and the comfort of our God are not absent thoughts but real possibilities for us, ones that we should not only hope for, but orient ourselves towards.
Which of course brings me back to hymns. And in particular, one hymn, written during some dark times for the author, and dark times for our nation. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas day 1863. The Civil War was a disillusioning time for the nation, but it was an especially difficult time for Longfellow. In 1861, his wife Fanny was fatally burned in an accident involving sealing wax. Longfellow had been badly burned but unable to save her. The next year, he wrote that “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” The year he wrote the poem, Longfellow’s son Charles had run away to go to war, and that November had been gravely wounded. It was Christmas of that year that Longfellow wrote the poem, which was set to music a few years later.
And the poem proclaims a radical hope, in the face of the ongoing war and Longfellow’s personal tragedies. The poem tells how he heard the bells on Christmas day, the old familiar carols play. But then the cannons of war thundered, and “in despair And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But then, the bells rung louder and deeper in the face of human tragedy, proclaiming that
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
The hymns that we sing at this time of year are filled with outrageous assertions of love and peace, from Mary’s song to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” They were written not with just the vague belief that “anything is possible,” but with the tested hope that “something is possible.” If we want to be a part of what God is doing in the world, we would do well to listen to them.