- Singing Christmas Carols in Niamey. Photo by Shannon Maxwell.
Everyone has a story to tell, and every story is a song. This is true individually, but it is also true of cultures. Each society has its own song, and the tendency is to project (impose) this song on others. This is the strategy of songs – it is zero-sum. You cannot sing two songs at once, and you cannot listen to two songs at once. One song must dominate, otherwise cacophony is the result.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would have a son, Mary was living in a world of competing songs. The Roman Empire had a song that was relatively polyphonic. Most other religions were accepted and incorporated into the Empire, as long as they could coexist with worship of the Empire and of Caesar. The song of the Jewish people, however, was very different. It was a song of one God, and it was very inflexible on this point. Consequently, they quarreled often.
In the midst of this discord (sonically, spiritually and politically), Gabriel delivered a message to Mary that would cause her to sing a new song. He told her that her son would reign on the throne of David, and that his kingdom would never end (Luke 1:31-33). Mary then went to see her cousin Elizabeth, and sang a song that has become very well known, The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
This song was extremely political, and managed to recall the great deeds of God in the past, while also invoking them in the present. In the past, God had “brought down rulers from their thrones,” and had “lifted up the humble.” The hungry have been filled with “good things,” whereas the rich he “sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53 NIV). Obviously, this was about to happen again with the return of the one true king who would reign in justice and in truth. Therefore it is a song of celebration, announcing the freedom of God’s people. It is a song of liberation, sung in the face of oppression and Empire. It would have been impossible for Mary to come up with such a song had God not given her this vision, this alternate view of reality, this new song.
New Song – Transform reality
The idea of singing a new song is one that is found often in the Psalms. Ps. 96:1, for example, says “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth” (NIV). We are called to sing a new song, a song that has never been heard before, and a song that, perhaps, has never even been imagined before. The Christmas story is a song. It is told each year from pulpits and in pageants, through film and through fellowship, and especially through carols. Indeed, in the words of Marilynne Robinson, part of being a follower of Jesus is accepting “stewardship of this remarkable narrative.” A fundamental part of that stewardship is to tell the story, to sing the song. Although the song of Christmas is sung each year, it remains a new song, because like every good story, it has new meaning with each telling. It is also a powerful story, that has an impact on our reality, both physically and spiritually.
This is true of all songs and stories and of all messages and news, both good and bad. Something may happen, but it does not become real for us until we hear about it or see evidence of it. In our day and age of the 24-hour news cycle, we have drastically cut down on the amount of time between an event occurring and the world hearing about it (and seeing video footage of it). Even if something happens on the other side of the world, if it is “news worthy” you will hear about it very quickly. But even now there is a gap between the occurrence of an event, and its impact on our lives. Unless we personally witness it, we are affected by the news of the event, not the event itself. This is true when we hear about the death of someone we know, or the birth of a new child.
I think of my grandparents who were both inmates at different Nazi work and death camps during the Second World War. My grandfather was liberated from Buchenwald in April, 1945 by the American army, but actually the Germans fled before the Americans arrived. He told me that they woke up and all of the guards were gone. At that moment they were free, but they did not know it yet. They were so accustomed to being prisoners that they could not even imagine their freedom, and they were so weak from starvation and disease that they could not even get up to find out the truth. It was only when they saw the American soldiers arrive that they understood that they were free. This news changed everything for them, and gave them strength to get up and embrace their liberation and their liberators.
What good is our freedom if we do not know we are free? We have been liberated, but if we still believe in the power of our chains, we will continue to wear them, and they will continue to bind us. But when we sing the song of freedom, the story of Christmas, our reality is changed.
Ps. 96:10 says, “The LORD reigns” (NIV). The psalm shows that God has defeated the other gods, and now the message has arrived – God is victorious and he reigns. But, in Hebrew v. 10 says, “יְהוָה מָלָךְ”, “malak Adonai,” which could be translated in different ways. It could mean that God is the king, and has always been the king, or it could mean that God has just now become the king. I would like to suggest that both statements are true. Yes, God has always reigned as king, but we are also making it true each time we announce it. When we say “God reigns,” we are not just reporting a truth (although we are doing that as well), we are also making it true. We are singing an old song that is made new each time it is sung. That is why we tell our story, because the news has just arrived from the battlefield. God has defeated the gods (Ps. 96:4-5), now he alone reigns. After the chaos of injustice and inequality, now “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity” (v. 10). Now a new song can be sung, and all of creation is free to sing and dance, to express their true nature which was hidden in slavery. Heaven and earth, the sea, the fields and the trees are all “jubilant” and “sing for joy” (vv. 11-12). They will all, “sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth” (v. 13).
The new song has the power to change the world and to change us. But we can only be changed by the story if we hear the story. We can only live our freedom if we know we are free. That is why we tell the story of Christmas. That is why we sing the new song.
New Song – Imagine the impossible
The return of the one true king means the establishing of a kingdom of justice that will last forever. It is not very difficult to see, however, that we are not yet living in this kingdom or under this king. Our world is full of injustice and evil. Everywhere we look we see darkness, and we hear stories and songs that are not of God. The song of Empire and the song of slavery are all around us. They play loudly, and try to drown out all other songs. They are difficult to avoid, we hear them everywhere, and if we hear them enough eventually we start to dance to their music, even if we do so unconsciously. We may try to hold onto our song of freedom and liberty, but these oppressive songs colonize our minds. They chase away every vestige of dissent, and eliminate any hint of a song that is not theirs. Sooner or later, we forget that other songs even exist, and it becomes impossible to imagine any but the songs we hear blaring all around us.
But that is the power of the new song. The power of the Christmas story. It allows us to imagine the impossible, for just like Gabriel said to Mary in Luke 1:37 – “nothing is impossible with God.”
This, of course, is very dangerous for those who are in power, those who rule by controlling what is and is not possible. We have already seen that a slave will continue to live in chains if they do not know that they have been set free. The flip side to this is that a slave in chains who can imagine the impossible, imagine his freedom, is already half-free. This is true because the slave, even though still bound by chains physically, has heard the new song of freedom, and the new song has already broken the power of the old song. For the first time, the Emperor has no clothes, and the slave is full of hope. When people have hope, tyranny is in trouble, because hope means the chains are coming off! That is the message of Christmas, and it was dramatically made evident during the Christmas season of 1985, when the apartheid government of South Africa banned Christmas carols among the black population. They knew the revolutionary potential contained in the message of hope.
“Come oh come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” These are strong words.
Of course, some songs are more subversive than others:
But really, all songs, stories and poems are potentially subversive because they allow us to imagine the impossible. Milan Kundera wrote that Kafka and other great novelists have a gaze that sees, “past the frontier of the implausible.” That is similar to the “burden” of the prophets. Prophecy was not so much predicting the future, but the ability to imagine a new song in the face of the song of Empire and slavery. Look, for example, at Isaiah 52.
First, in verses 1-2, God addresses Jerusalem, saying, “Rise up, put on strength, shake off your dust and take off your chains.” This audacious speech was spoken to a Jerusalem that was destroyed, a Jerusalem in ruins, whose people were in the slavery of exile. A bit further on God continues in v. 7:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (NIV)
Yes, everyone knows this verse. It is famous, and justly so, for it is beautiful. We all know that the feet of those who bring good news are beautiful. But do we remember what the good news is? It is freedom! It is salvation! It is peace! The beautiful feet belong to the messenger who comes running to us from the battlefield, and proclaims, just as we saw in Ps. 96, that we are free. The battle has been won. Our God is king. It is a message that is fresh and breathless and impossible and true. It is a new song.
This new song is sung in the face of the impossible. Even though they were still in chains, still in slavery and in exile, and still facing a massive, powerful Empire, the people of Israel had hope. Jerusalem would rise again. In Isa. 52:9, the ruins of Jerusalem are told to join in this new song of joy, for “the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (NIV).
Not only would Jerusalem rise again, it would be rebuilt in a spectacular manner. Isa. 54:11-12 describes it:
“Oh afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.”
If you are able to look at a city destroyed and make this claim, you are either a madman or a prophet. It was an impossible vision, but it had real power, and it provided real hope. Once the people of Israel were able to sing their own song, this new song, the power of the song of Empire began to wane. The new song offered them an alternate vision, one of peace, justice and love. Even though they were not able to see it yet, they were able to see a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. That is why we tell the story of Christmas. That is why we sing the new song.
For one day all of creation will join in the same song. They will sing in different tongues and tones, but they will sing the same song. Instead of cacophony, there will be harmony. Harmony among humankind, harmony with nature and harmony with God.
“And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.”
 Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 127.
 Actually you don’t even need to follow the news. It will show up on your facebook newsfeed.
 Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise, Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 34. This whole post was largely inspired by this awesome book. Read it.
 Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise, 43,171.
 Milan Kundera, The Curtain, An Essay in Seven Parts, Trans. by Linda Asher (New York: Faber and Faber, 2007), 73.
 From the 3rd stanza of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, by Edmund Sears. This whole poem treats the theme of song in the Christmas story.