Singing for Silence: An Advent Reflection

One of our lectionary readings during Advent comes from the part in Luke’s gospel where Zechariah is told that he will have a son.  Z, a high priest, does not believe the messenger who relays this to him, and for his impertinence is rendered silent until the baby is born.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” 21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

But I wonder if she let him sing.

This past month I have been back at Emmanuel Episcopal to sing Lessons and Carols and their Christmas Eve service.  A number of reasons led me back to Emmanuel for the holiday season, but the most grace-filled unintended consequence has been a time to shut up and sing.

Let me admit right now I am an advocate of organized religion, but I know it’s not for everyone.  When I stumbled upon the Eucharistic liturgy of the Anglican Church, I knew I was right where I needed to be.  And why?

Well, when you have the attention span of a gnat on crack, a bit of structure, especially spiritual structure, is a good thing.  Quite often, I refuse to hear the calm voice of the Lord over the incessant chattering in my mind.  Ironically, this chattering is often revolving around theological issues: I love reading other people’s take on theology, especially in reaction or appreciation to CS Lewis.  But this I find more often than not, is a hindrance to grace, an intellectual posturing that does more to remove my mind from God than focus on Him.  So when Providence places before me, this ADD addled stumbler-after-Christ, a point of focus, I grab at it like a lifeline.  Hence, the liturgy.

How does singing enter into this?  I don’t have much of a voice, a shaky tenor at best, and the musical ear of a white cat (they are usually deaf).  They say that singing is prayer times two, and I think the reason is because it focuses the singer on singing the song, not analyzing its lyrical content.  Therefore, the cadences and rhythms and poetry of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is more important than say, an analysis of 15th Century German theological understanding of Jesse’s lineage.  The repetitive phrase “Praise Him, Ye Angels” sung over and over again, while not intellectually taxing, is nevertheless (to me anyway) a spiritual time out from the brain’s cacophony of words, words, words.

Did Z have this problem as well?   I think he might have.  The first part of verse 22 lends itself to the possibility:  “When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.”  Meaning, possibly, that when Z came out, he usually had something to say.  It was clearly not pleasant to be in this situation, as can be inferred from the last part of the verse “he kept motioning but was unable to speak.”   Z is a high priest, a man immersed the Book, a man, most likely of clear arguments and rebuttals, of binding and loosing.  And yet he cannot speak.  What can he do?  What does God want him to do?

Listen, of course.  But he’s impatient.  This doesn’t make sense to him, he needs to talk it out.  But no, silence.

But perhaps one night, before John was born, he realized all of this, let his mind be as quiet as his voice, at which point, maybe, just maybe…he sang.

My gift of silence comes from being in the choir-a bit of paradox, I know, but a place where I am forced to breath, to listen, to hold a note and not bombard it with thought.  To rejoice in waiting.

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Advent Reflection: Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto

Two pilgrims, an old man and an old woman, kneel on stone steps hands nearly clasped but more rightly said to be cupped, walking sticks resting on their shoulders.  They kneel in front of Mary and the baby Jesus, Mary appearing as though the two had just caught her attention and she has turned suddenly to look at the them, perhaps brought out of some personal rumination.  The Christ child looks down on the pilgrims, chubby, naked, index finger pointing.

What kind of fights did Mary and Joseph have with each other?  Did Joseph ever feel insecure about the Virgin Birth?  Did he, in moments of weariness and weakness (perhaps Jesus never slept completely through the night) lash out at Mary?  “He’s not mine, anyway!”  yelled out in a fit of impatience and frustration, knowing full well he just lost it, the immediate apology forthcoming, but:  Did Mary ever leave?  Run off to clear her head of an argument, perhaps taking the Christ child with her, the one entity she felt completely bound to, and was it during this walk that she came upon the two pilgrims?  And perhaps, after hearing the clatter of sticks falling and the cries of praise for her and for Christ, after turning and seeing glistening eyes and weathered faces, after seeing her newborn point to the old couple and smile, did she think of her argument with Joseph?  Of how petty it all was in the face of what Was to Come, and all of her anger slipped away, pity and compassion returned to her face, and the faintest glimmer of a halo returned encircling her and her Babe’s head?  Was Joseph just out of frame, witnessing this?

Does our anger of the present blind us to what or who we hold in our hands for eternity?

“Excellent!”

Part of the Advent reading from Phillipians this week (Phil 1-11) is verse 10, of which a portion says “so that you approve what is excellent.”  And of course, child of 80s and 90s as I am, I immediately thought of that wonderful benediction from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Be excellent to each other!”

What does excellent mean in this context?  How do we see it, much less approve of it?  Paul wishes that our love would “abound more and more” which gives us a clue that the giving and receiving of love, a love which grows and grows and nearly leaps to connect with people helps us see excellence better.  Excellence, then, is not merely a solitary concept, but something that happens in relationship to something else.  A single thing is not excellent until it is communicated or interacted with in love.

So, yes, a flat tire can be excellent- when you help someone fix it.  A broken relationship is excellent- when time is given between people to heal and grow again.  A book is excellent- when the reader really connects with the story, and joins the author on his/her adventure.  Food is excellent- when it is used to feed the hungry.  And waiting is excellent, when we share our anticipation of the coming of Emmanuel.   And all of this done with love.  When we are excellent to each other.