It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that repeated in my lifetime. It’s based on Thumper’s forgotten rule; “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is something we want all our kids to learn, because we all realize how you say something carries as much meaning as what you are trying to say.
While the rhetoric used in much of the presidential campaign removed Thumper’s rule to some distant place, some of the language used by people of faith related to racialization, immigration, education, and health care have been just as difficult to hear. It’s no longer just about what we believe and why we believe it, but it’s just as important how we choose to communicate it.
That takes me to our text for this week. There is a specific way Luke tells his Christmas narrative. I don’t think I’ve paid as much attention to this in the past as I have this year. There are several characters that are particular to Luke’s narrative. First of all, his inclusion of women in the narrative is as important as Matthew’s in the genealogy; Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. He doesn’t back away from using those considered lowly and shamed; one because she was barren, and the other pregnant out of wedlock. Neither does he hesitate including those that are shunned by society. Where Matthew includes Wise Men, Luke includes shepherds.
The other characters from Luke’s account include Zechariah, Simeon, and the heavenly choir. We could use our text for this week to compare Zechariah and Mary’s response to their respective angelic visits; or discuss how Luke chooses to tell his story through a woman; but I think it would help us living in our current cultural climate to not just look at what is said, but how it is said.
We see it expressed in a variety of ways, showing up in Hobby Lobby stores where I live before July 4, and Black Friday beginning on Thursday now. Decorations go up for many right after Halloween, and we have all crossed the line related to when we should begin playing Christmas music. You’d think with all these signs and others that Christmas should be alive and well. I think what we are saying gets lost at times in how we say it. So, maybe getting back to Luke’s way is best.
What is Luke’s way? How do the characters in Luke tell the story? They sing their way through it. I’d never thought of this before, but look at the characters in his narrative. Four of them; Mary, Zechariah, the heavenly choir, and Simeon, break into song as response to the message they are hearing. Call these the first Christmas carols as they sing their response to the story being told. They recount in song stories that are older than them, and songs that have been sung for a long time. I’m proposing maybe for people living in the way of Jesus, this third Sunday of Advent, we retell the story by singing too. Mary sets the tone as our text today shows.
I found these thoughts on this passage from a couple of years ago by Alan Brehm. Even though it was written over three years ago, it has never been more appropriate:
“While Mary’s song is a song of hope and joy, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family. That barb is this—most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed. Mary’s song of hope is a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last. And yet, even here there is good news—the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family. She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.
What that means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” here and now is that the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy—the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up—is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration. The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised. That was what Jesus came to do—to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry. That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas. It is a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It is a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over what God is already doing among us. It is a time to celebrate the work of restoration God is carrying out in the human family—the whole human family. And it is a time for us to join that work.”
So what is Luke’s way? How does Luke choose to tell the story? He sings his way through the story, and so should we. It’s all about the song. There isn’t a season more saturated with music than Christmas, and everyone wants to be a part. Whether inside or outside the church, this time of year is shaped by song. There is a song for everything. We carol, sing hymns, attend concerts, ballets; all shaped by song. Frankly, we come by it honestly.
So every season of Advent, and this week in particular, as we prepare for the coming of the baby again let’s join Luke, Mary, Zechariah, the heavenly hosts, and Simeon in a great Christmas tradition; let’s sing. It is how those living in the way of Jesus have responded to Christmas since its first announcements. And it speaks well of our savior, us, and the work yet to be done.
Mary, and we, sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us. We sing hoping the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God will be fulfilled for all the peoples of the world, and maybe even through us. We sing in the hope there are no empty hands this Christmas, that all is made good and right again. We sing because we look forward to “peace on earth, and mercy mild”; it is the heart and soul of our faith. We sing because the good news of God has entered this world by way of a baby to set everything right and to make all things new. And we sing because in and through this marvelous event, “light and life to all he brings.”
We all like to sing carols, so maybe in honor of Mary singing our first Christmas carol, we join her in a better song this year. Let’s sing.