Making music which expresses renewed strength and hope in the midst of dark and difficult days is a practice that is not unusual for people of faith. This was true for one of the early leaders of the Methodist movement, Charles Wesley, who sailed home to England in August of 1736 feeling defeated and disheartened after failing in his mission to create communities of faith in the American colony of Georgia. Like most of us at some point in our lives, as Wesley crossed the Atlantic, never to return to the Georgia colony, he questioned God’s faithfulness and grieved the loss of his dream that had taken him so far from home. But, back in England, after having his heart and mind renewed by the love of God and the power of God’s Spirit, Wesley was given a new dream to bring the good news of God’s love to the struggling working-class families of England. This dream held forth a vision of a community that recognizes the dignity of each person, cares for the least among us, and provides everyone with the opportunity to thrive. At the same time as this vision of community emerged, Wesley began to write his poetic hymns, about 6,000 of them, for which he became known and through which communities of faith around the world for centuries have expressed their trust in God.
When we turn to our Scripture lessons today we discover this same powerful dynamic of making music to express faith in dark times. In the final words of the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk written several hundred years before Mary’s song we find this concluding phrase: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” The words in the closing chapter of Habakkuk which the prophet passed on to the choirmaster are poetic words which speak of Habakkuk’s rejoicing in the Lord and exulting in the God of his salvation. These words of trust and hope, given over by the prophet to the choirmaster for singing songs of praise to God, stand in sharp contrast to the prophet’s earlier words in chapter one when he complains and cries out to God, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”
The feelings of despair and disillusionment expressed by Habakkuk in chapter one reflect the prophet’s fears and frustrations related to the state of his nation: when he looks at what’s happening he sees much darkness: as he puts it in his cries and complaints to God, the prophet sees “wrong-doing and trouble; destruction and violence; strife and contention; injustice and perversion of the law.” With his nation falling apart, the prophet finds himself in a place of deep personal pain and hopelessness where it’s nearly impossible to sing the Lord’s song.
When we turn to chapter two, we read God’s response to the prophet: “There is still vision for the appointed time…if it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure.”
In these words, God re-assures Habakkuk not to give up on his dream - the prophetic vision of a nation of justice and peace for all God’s children. God makes it clear that while those who arrogantly trust in their riches may have their day, it is those who put their faith in God who will endure and who will, in time, lead the nation to fulfill the dream. And so, despite the darkness of the moment, Habakkuk is empowered by the promise of a dream yet to be fulfilled and, in response to God’s faithfulness, Habakkuk calls forth a song of heartfelt praise, renewed trust and unexpected joy.
Like the prophet of old, Mary lifts up her song of praise to God in a time of darkness for her nation. Her people were living under the rule of Rome and there was no clear way out of the oppressive occupation. Many of her own country’s political and religious leaders, along with wealthy business owners, were proud to be respected citizens of Rome. They collaborated with the enemy and supported the law and order enforced by the Roman military in order to maintain and grow their wealth and their power as members of the elite in Israel. In contrast, violence and rebellion against Rome was being advocated by some who felt betrayed by their leaders. This great division among the people of Israel caused constant tension and stress across the nation, disagreement within families and fear among the most vulnerable. Most working class families, common people, like Mary and Joseph, wanted to simply live out their lives in peace, avoid conflict and pray for God to one day bring freedom and unity, peace and justice back to their nation.
Into this context, the angel visited Mary with the announcement that turned her life upside down. When the angelic messenger said to Mary, “Do not be afraid…for you will conceive and bear a son,” Mary found herself connected to the larger story of the Jewish people, the recurring story of dreams in which the impossible is made possible by God. In response to Mary’s initial confusion and fear, the messenger helped Mary to begin the process of imagining a new future even more blessed than the one she feared was lost. As this dream for her and her people became clearer, Mary was able to sing songs of praise to God even while living in darkness.
All of us, not just people in places and times far off, share this challenging experience. Our challenge, like that of Habakkuk and Mary, is how to discover new hope and a reason to sing during times of personal difficulty and pain along with times of darkness and division across our nation and world. As with Mary, and Habakkuk before her, we can take the first step toward hope when we realize that our lives are connected to the same dream of the same God who has been doing the impossible throughout history.
Finding hope in God during a time of personal and national darkness was the experience of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In the summer of 1861 Longfellow’s wife, Frances, died tragically in a fire. That first Christmas without her, he wrote in his diary, “how inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” The next year was no better, as he recorded, “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” In 1863 as the Civil War was dragging on, Longfellow’s son joined the army against his father’s wishes and was soon critically injured. On Christmas Day that year, as nearby church bells announced the arrival of another painful Christmas, Longfellow picked up his pen and began to write, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The words begin pleasantly and then take on a dark tone. The violent imagery of the pivotal fourth verse conflicts with the spirit of a traditional Christmas carol. “Accursed cannons thundering,” mock the more common, tranquil messages of peace and good will.
By the fifth and sixth verses, Longfellow’s despair is nearly complete. He wrote, “It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent.” Overcome by the darkness of hatred and division Longfellow continued, “And in my despair, I bowed my head and said, ‘there is no peace on earth.”
But then, from the depths of that dark winter night of his and our nation’s soul, Longfellow heard the unimaginable sound of hope. And in response he wrote this final, seventh stanza, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep! The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Whether during our own personal and national crises or when we hear of tragedies across our world, we dare to hope in God’s dream for this world. Despite all the voices of doubt and fear within and around us, we are sustained by the belief that with God all things are possible. And so, when we gather to celebrate communion today, like Mary, we connect our lives to the promise born and the dream lived out in Jesus Christ. And, also like Mary, as our hearts yearn for the coming of Jesus once again, we sing songs of hope and praise and power: songs of Emmanuel, God with us now and forever. Amen!