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. (I blogged an invitation to the service here and the post includes some background on the service.)
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.