One of the divas currently reigning at the Metropolitan Opera is a supremely gifted soprano with an enormous vocal range. Her name is Joyce DiDonato and I was fortunate enough to attend her recital at Carnegie Hall a little over a week ago. The evening was entitled “In War and Peace: Harmony through Music” and it consisted of a program made, essentially, of Baroque music – some chestnuts, some rarities. And while the program was staged in a pointedly avant-garde way – dramatic lighting and projections, smoke, costuming and make-up, and even a modern dancer moving sensuously to the music of a period-instrument ensemble, the most impressive thing about the work was Ms. DiDonato’s ability to hold the entire concert hall in her strong and supple hands. She created an atmosphere of the kind of beauty – and genuine comfort – that had a packed house softly leaning in, craving more of what she had to offer.
After the music and singing ended, our diva took a microphone and made a stirring curtain speech. She spoke about music and the ways it can have an impact on our thoughts and feelings. She noted something of a philosophical position that has informed her work – the knowledge that both artist and observer come into the moment of artistic expression both looking for something ineffable, and yet so certain about the universality of beauty and life experience and the roles they play in a troubled world. She spoke about having, in the last year, come to the brink of despair and how that gem-like core of the musical experience helped guide and sustain her. She spoke of how that spirit coalesced into a desire that we might all meet in the kind of place that bids us remain hopeful for the future – the kind of place that insists music and art still have so much to offer.
Her words left me feeling that much more hopeful myself. And as I, subsequently, thought and prayed about our Christmas morning scripture readings, I felt myself moved by the very nature of music. Somehow, I was led to reflect upon our Psalm for today.
It seems even more fitting now that Psalm 98 suggests it’s only natural to respond to God’s presence and action in the world by bursting into song. Something about singing – and ‘psalm’ is, as you may be aware, the Hebrew word for song – something about it inexplicably bridges the gap between memory and anticipation when it comes to the experience of the Divine. And, in this season, music is central – perhaps because it’s so stirring.
The psalm’s text describes a great symphony – unimaginably beautiful and harmonious – so elevating of spirit as to lend cosmic importance. And as the words do their conjuring, we’re drawn into the sacred and joy-filled space of celebrating not only God’s coming to be with us in a new way, we also cannot help but sense the love that moves God toward us.
I use the present tense for all its meaning, because the entire Christmas narrative, in all its forms, when held together with the power of music, becomes less about a historical moment trapped in linear time, and more about how God’s love continues to happen. Christmas is a beautiful, highly charged and intensely sensory reminder of God’s action and intention. And this Christmas reminder functions in a profoundly spiritual and mystical way, stretching beyond the simple narratives of manger, shepherds and magi, to point us to the transcendent meaning in those events.
Psalm 98 seems perfectly suited to the Christmas liturgy!
In fact, all our scripture readings today seem to swirl and intertwine in a mystical dance:
• Isaiah – again offering twin strands of remembrance and anticipation
• Hebrews – likening ancient prophetic witness to the sustaining word in the present
• And John’s prologue – filled with beauty and mystery that draws us out of ourselves and toward the co-eternal God who became flesh and dwelt among us.
And yet, even in response to such beautiful and mysterious writings, we may find ourselves facing a serious dilemma. How is it that we can welcome the birth of Jesus with joyful singing in the midst of a world crippled by violence, exploitation, hunger, greed and suspicion? There’s a deep spiritual tension in the juxtaposition of joyful anticipation with a world crying out in distress.
Perhaps the greatest gift of these mystical texts and the resonant references to musical praising is that we can, through such forms of expression, enter into an understanding that holds in delicate balance the knowledge that beyond the manger lies not only the cross but the resurrection. Woven through the blending of words and music we discover a rhythmic expanding and contracting in our ability to discern God’s ways – God’s response to the brokenness of our world – God’s unquenchable desire to look for the loving response no matter the affliction. Psalm 98, then, joins all our holiday music and narrative to insist that the joy of Christmas is not compromised, but actually deepened by the acknowledgement that the reign of God provokes powerful opposition. We sing, therefore, in gratitude for what God has done and is doing – and we sing in anticipation of what God has promised. And our song soon becomes a protest to all that stands in opposition to the reign of our loving God.
It’s always been this way. The very first Christmas story in the gospels marked Jesus’ birth as a protest against the violent rule of Herod and the life-crushing ways of Roman occupation. No wonder angels sang in the heavens! And, among so many related examples, I love, perhaps best of all, the famous story of the Christmas truce in 1914, when soldiers fighting World War I – sworn enemies – somehow met in that universal place of love.
Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve, “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And we thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ¬– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s land,” the ground between opposing trenches.
Psalm 98 – which is actually the inspiration for Isaac Watts’ Christmas carol “Joy to the World” – begins with the particular experience of Israel, and concludes with a vision of the reign of God encompassing all people and nations – indeed, all of nature. What do we make of this invitation to a universal orchestra and chorus? Is it significant somehow that the invitation is to sing or play an instrument rather than recite a creed? I think so. I think it’s indicative of God’s expansive nature.
Charles Ives – the great 20th century composer and a devoted Christian – is noted, in part, for his hope that, one day, music would become the universal language of all human beings. A universal confession of faith, if you will. When we confess our faith simply in words, as in even the greatest creeds and confession statements, the thoughts can seem a bit cold – rigid – out of sync with the eternal mystery of God and drawing boundaries that tend to divide. Held in tension with music – or even set to music – the language of faith can be transformed into poetry – images infused with grace and warmth that point gently toward the eternal mystery that transcends language and even thought. This invites rather than divides.
There’s much more to be said about Ives and his efforts to incorporate dissonance into the beauty of a larger whole – very theological stuff – but I’d like to circle back and finish with the last bit of wisdom we lucky audience members received from Joyce DiDonato.
As she spoke about the nature of music and how it can represent a sacred space of beauty and comfort that all who are present might inhabit, she moved, almost imperceptibly toward her conclusion. She spoke about how world events have made such a profound impact on so many of us. The violence, the greed, the darkness of spirit that seem to have gained the upper hand, these have left us so uneasy and, in many cases, account for some of what fuels our seeking what music and the arts can offer.
As she spoke I found myself nodding in assent, affirming her remarks, recalling how often in the last several months especially, this community has come together in the knowledge that we must continue to be grounded in our loving relationship with God – how we may not be able to instantly and powerfully make changes at the national or global levels, but how we must begin in our own hearts, then maybe one on one in conversation, then small groups – all leading to the shared experience of strength and hope that might take root and grow into a slow and solid transformation of what, presently, seems a pretty scary social ethic. And just as I was thinking of how I’m trying myself to keep the conversation going in terms of “what’s working for you?” – I love asking my loved ones, friends and colleagues if they can articulate a response to that question. Just as I was reflecting on that, our diva asked the entire audience to consider, “What is it that gives you peace?”
I wanted to stand on my seat and cheer! Her question – and it wasn’t just rhetorical, she’d included a card in the program asking for the audience’s responses. Her remarks and question apparently had a similar impact on the entire house. We all seemed to float so tenderly and solemnly from the hall. And I’d be surprised if I were the only one who experienced a lasting effect.
“O sing to the Lord a new song…” The Psalm calls us to open our hearts, our minds and our eyes to the world around us and not forget the possibility of a victory so wondrous as to be unthinkable. Singing this new song together will increase hope in us, and build among us new perceptions of the divine presence. The Psalm reveals God’s spirit of love in the events of the earth, in relations between individuals and between nations. And its imperative for our participation radically affirms that it is our own participation in the glorious cosmic symphony – each one reaches one – that will, indeed bring Joy to the World! “…and heaven and nature sing!”