Christmas Day 2015: A New Song
Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-14, Guildford Cathedral - The Bishop of Guildford, The Rt Revd Andrew Watson
It was the last week of December 2008, that blissful post-Christmas holiday beloved of clergy-people everywhere - and since Hazel my mother-in-law had turned 70 earlier that month, we decided to take her to Dublin, on a trip down memory lane. We’d visited the Cathedral, Trinity College, the Zoo and the Guinness Factory. We’d taken a train to the town of Howth on Dublin Bay, and had stood outside Hazel’s childhood home before indulging in fish and chips on the sea front. We’d taken tea at Bewleys in Grafton Street, where Hazel’s mother once served refreshments to the likes of James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett. We’d visited the central post office, pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1916 Easter uprising, and the hospital where Hazel’s father, then a boy, had narrowly dodged a bullet himself.
And as we were walking back to our hotel, I noticed a bronze plaque by the side of the road: ‘This bronze’, it read, ‘commemorates the first performance of George Friedric Handel’s oratorio ‘Messiah’, given in the old music hall in Fishamble Street at noon on Thursday, April 13th 1742’. The very first performance of Messiah, probably the best-loved choral work of all time: now that was worth stopping for! And although the old music hall in Fishamble Street has been long demolished, we paused for a moment, running over the famous tunes in our mind and giving thanks for those remarkable 24 days, in which Handel shut himself in a room and wrote Messiah in a white-hot frenzy of creativity and inspiration.
And it was Handel’s idea – or rather that of his librettist Charles Tennens - to bring together Isaiah chapter 9 and Luke chapter 2, our two reading this morning. About half an hour into the great work, the bass soloist sings of how ‘the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’, followed by a chirpy and joyous chorus, ‘For unto us a child is born’. A short orchestral interlude follows of a rather pastoral nature, and then we’re sitting with the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside, as Isaiah’s great light shines upon them and the chorus erupt into song once more, the song of the angels – ‘Glory to God in the highest!’ And so it continues from one magnificent highlight to another. Christmas and singing; singing and Christmas: as George Friedric recognised, the two belong together like love and marriage – or indeed like the fish and chips we indulged in, on the seafront of Dublin Bay.
From deep darkness to great light; from sadness to joy, oppression to freedom, war to reconciliation: these are the themes of Isaiah’s great song, written two and a half millennia before the time of Handel, and culminating in the birth of a remarkable child, who would be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’. Dating, it’s thought, from the year 725 BC, Isaiah’s song marked a new era in the history of Israel: a time when the brutal Assyrians were at last in decline; when their cruel king Tiglath-Pileser III had just died – he whose proud portrait is carved into those remarkable Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum - and when a new king of Israel had come to the throne: the good King Hezekiah, replacing his father, the hopeless King Ahaz. A new day was dawning, that’s the inspiration behind this song - the prospect of a free Israel under a faithful king. It’s even possible that Isaiah’s words were sung at King Hezekiah’s coronation, though to a rather different musical setting than that of Mr G. F. Handel, and in rather grander surroundings that the old music hall, Fishamble Street.
But Hebrew prophecy has a tendency to bounce back: to have an immediate fulfilment, as the child Hezekiah in this case was duly enthroned, but then to gather strength and be fulfilled a second time, a third time or even more. And in the seven or eight centuries that separated the era of Isaiah and Hezekiah from the era of Luke and Jesus, this prophecy never went away. The Assyrians would rise and fall, the Babylonians would rise and fall, the Persians would rise and fall, the Seleucids would rise and fall, the Romans would rise and rise: and often there wasn’t a lot to sing about for poor Israel, caught up as a pawn in the middle. But as the expectation of a coming Messiah began to gather pace, this old song – a song of great light in deep darkness, of a child born to be king – became inextricably part of that expectation. New songs were few and far between: new prophets were almost non-existent. In those centuries that passed between the last of the great prophets and the coming of Jesus – between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New – the ‘world in solemn stillness lay’, but the song of the angels eluded them.
And then suddenly, here in Luke’s Gospel, all kinds of people start breaking out into song: women and men, the young and the elderly, lay people and priestly people. Elizabeth sung her Ave Maria, Mary her Magnificat; Zechariah sung his Benedictus, Simeon his Nunc Dimittis. Even those shepherds, summoned from the hillsides of Bethlehem to worship their Saviour, their Messiah, their Lord, speak to us of another shepherd, summoned from the hillsides of Bethlehem a thousand years’ earlier: young David, shepherd-boy, king, Israel’s celebrated ‘singer of songs’.
By now the angels had joined in with their Gloria in Excelsis, and next came the most astonishing song of them all. Back in the ancient prophecy of Zephaniah, we hear of a day when God Himself would sing: ‘The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing’. And then it happened. For as the songs of the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel die away, a new song emerges in Luke chapter 3, a love song sung over Jesus at his baptism: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’.
So why? Why this eruption of heart-felt singing right at the beginning of the New Testament? Why the similar eruptions that regularly break out in the gospels, the epistles, the book of Revelation, the 2000-year history of the Church? Why have almost all of the greatest Western composers – even contemporary composers - joined in those songs of worship, as generation after generation has found inspiration in the life, death and resurrection of this man Jesus? Why is it that even today, the Church is alive with the sound of music?
There are different answers to those questions, of course, ranging from the pragmatic to the aesthetic, from the psychological to the theological. But at heart the answer is this: that through this Jesus, humanity has found new hope, new love, new freedom, new forgiveness, new friendship, new family; that through this Jesus, lives have been given new purpose, new direction, a new future; that through this Jesus, men and women from almost every culture on earth, have moved from deep darkness to great light, from sadness to joy, oppression to freedom, war to reconciliation. In the Psalms we regularly read the words, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’; and Elizabeth and Mary, Zechariah and Simeon, the angels and even God Himself, did just that – and so indeed did George Friedric Handel in those 24 days of white-hot creativity – now that Jesus was revealed as Isaiah’s ultimate ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’.
And so to ourselves: and if you or I were to reflect on this past year and to sing a new song this Christmas morning, what song would we sing? Would the song within us be in a solidly major key or in a minor one - maybe shifting somewhere between the two? Would our song be exuberant, passionate, full of the joys of spring - or dull, tired, in desperate need of fresh excitement, fresh adventure?
Might our song be a jumble of conflicting sounds, as competing pressures have clashed with one another, and the harmony of our lives has become muddled and discordant along the way? That would seem to reflect the global song of 2015, as our screens have been filled with horrors, from dead boys washed up on Mediterranean beaches to chaos on the streets of Paris. Might the stuck-record have become our song, as we have found ourselves so entrapped in our grief or guilt, our pain or bitterness, that the same bars have repeated again and again, and we’ve not known how to stop them?
And what of the song that is tone-deaf to the reality of God’s presence among us – not our song, perhaps, but that of some of our neighbours and colleagues, who simply can’t believe in the very existence of harmony, of rhythm, of melody or of the divine composer who created it all – and are becoming less and less tolerant of those who can?
Whatever the song we would sing as we look back over the past year, It’s as we begin to glimpse the sheer magnitude of the Christmas story - the magnitude of God the Creator coming in the person of Jesus His Son to draw us back into an eternal relationship with Him – that the old tired, discordant, cracked songs of the past can be replaced by a new song, a song of praise and worship and hope for the future.
It’s not that such a song is entirely bright and cheerful, of course, without dissonance and in a universally major key: such music, at the end of the day, is often bland and dull, and the Christmas story itself has more than its share of misunderstanding and selfishness, of fear and even brutality. But to know that God is with us in the song, with us in the green pastures and through the valley of the shadow of death; to know that our lives are heading not towards decay and disintegration but towards wholeness and harmony; to know that God is in the business of taking each individual voice, each unique melody, and drawing them together them into a glorious hymn of praise and expectation – is a very wonderful thing, the bedrock of a life that is both secure and purposeful.
For as George Friedric Handel, a devout Lutheran, recognised himself, God calls us to live life to His praise and glory. He calls us to leave behind the old self-centred songs with their constant refrain of guilt or self-pity. He calls us to stop looking inwards - for your insides, like my insides, are generally rather muddled and not a pretty sight - and to start looking upwards instead. And what He calls us to do He also enables us to do, as we invite the presence of His Spirit to fill us afresh, and to inspire our every move.
For it’s only as we respond to that call that we can truly be in tune with God, living at his pace, seeking harmony with Him, with those around us, and within ourselves as well. It’s only then that we can discover the good news of great joy, the life in all its fullness, that drew those shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem to worship King David’s Greater Son. It’s only then that we can we take our honoured place in God’s great plan of salvation, and join in the songs of Elizabeth and Mary, of Zechariah and Simeon, of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven - and of a thousand and one choral societies too, as they draw towards the close of Part Two of the Messiah and blast out the Halleluia Chorus with joy, enthusiasm and varying degrees of accuracy.
Indeed Handel’s words, as he later reflected on those extraordinary 24 days, and on the writing of that most famous of choruses, are words that still speak to us this morning, as we marvel afresh at the baby of Bethlehem: "I did think I saw all Heaven before me, and the great God himself”.