One reason music is so powerful is context.
We hear an “oldie” on the radio and remember the sweetheart we danced with “back then” and feel a pang of nostalgia.
We hear the theme music announcing a favorite TV show and the pleasures of watching that show come flooding back.
Music we enjoy with one crowd might be excruciating if, for instance, our parents happen to be in the room.
Music we enjoy at a concert may have us banging on the elevator doors when we’re caught in a Muzak version. Context matters.
One reason that sacred music moves us, is that we remember all the times and places we have sung that same song before. The meanings form new layers over time. Who were we with and what did that worship experience mean to us, and to the others we worshipped beside?
This morning I had the opportunity to sing Christmas carols at a service at the National Cathedral, a joint service with a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, Palestine.
It was 10:00 AM for Washington, and 5:00 PM for Bethlehem. A special treat was the Bethlehem Bell Choir, which played an introit. They did a harmonious job and looked like the bell choirs in small churches I have served: a collection of youth and adults intent on their timing — one of my favorite images of community.
Our opening hymn was “O Come All Ye Faithful,” hardly an unusual choice for a Christmas worship service. But the words of verse 3 hit me:
Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Sing, all you citizens of heaven above! Glory to God all glory in the highest! O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
We were singing literally in concert with people in Palestine, many of whom have no citizenship. Palestine is not a sovereign nation and so the people who live there are denied citizenship. They cannot move freely about, and are treated as “less than.”
Singing with them as fellow “citizens of heaven” had a deeper, more poignant meaning. Together we celebrate Jesus’ coming into the world through a long-ago birth in Bethlehem, which was then, as it is now, a region under occupation.
Whatever you believe — or whatever you question — I wish you a Christmas celebration that breathes new meaning into old traditions, as we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace.
Here’s an explanation of how this annual Prayer Service began:
In 2006 a group gathered in concern for the deteriorating situation in Palestine and Israel. It was a few months before Christmas, and thoughts turned to Bethlehem and the present-day wall around the city. What if the Christmas events took place today? Would Mary and Joseph be able to cross into Bethlehem on their journey from Nazareth? The 30-foot wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem would block the way. Perhaps Mary would give birth while waiting to cross through a checkpoint, as happens for some Palestinian women today on their way to the hospital. Recognizing that most Americans do not know about the realities of Palestinian life, the Ad Hoc Committee for Bethlehem was formed to raise awareness. This committee then sponsored events to lift up the need for justice and peace in Bethlehem and throughout the land, and to remind the faithful of the calling to be peacemakers. This service is an outcome of their work. Today a concrete wall remains, separating Bethlehem from neighboring Jerusalem, five miles away. Residents find themselves cut off from relatives, unable to worship at religious sites in Jerusalem, and limited in their opportunities for higher education and employment. The concrete wall not only separates the West Bank from Israel: it cuts through Palestinian land, separating farmers from fields and effectively annexing their land. Israeli roads and settlements in the region further segment Palestinian communities. Many Palestinians who have the means have left the Holy Land in search of a better life elsewhere. The Christian population of Bethlehem has declined from a majority several decades ago to about fifteen percent today. The presence of Christians throughout the Holy Land has dwindled to less than two percent. The current situation in Bethlehem is of concern to Christians around the world who seek to follow the Prince of Peace in building bridges that connect rather than walls that divide. Today we turn our hearts to the one God who loves all equally, and pray that a new day will dawn for us, for Palestinians, and for Israelis