Hearing the hope: Advent 1
Isaiah 9:2, 6–7
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
I want to share a favorite piece of music with the kids today. I remember the first time that I sang the last part of this famous “oratorio.” Know what "oratorio" means? It is an Italian word meaning, a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, which is typically a narrative on a religious theme. One of the most famous ones is Handel’s “Messiah”. It has various parts. The first one is based on the prophesies of the birth of Jesus. The second one exalts his sacrifice for humankind. The third one, which is the one that I sang, celebrates Jesus’ resurrection.
This is a new take on it that I found on the Internet of the first part, the one about Jesus’ birth. It is possible that some of the adults will remember it.
As you can see, Charles Jennens, who wrote the words for Handel’s music, used part of Isaiah’s words in the oratorio. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Historians affirm that Handel composed Messiah somewhere between three and four weeks in August and September of 1741. The text was prepared in July. Ironically, the music was written to be performed on Easter, and not on Christmas. But the oratorio has become a staple of Christmas music ever since.
People have recorded several reactions to the oratorio ever since it was first played. The Rev. Patrick Delany, upon hearing the soprano's interpretation of one of the pieces leapt to his feet and cried out: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" And then there was a legend that said that when King George II heard the Hallelujah chorus, he stood up… and in doing so, everyone would have been obliged to stand… and people still do so today.
Hearing Messiah brings people comfort and joy to this day. It is a reminder that God is at work in the world, and by doing so, it has turn into a way to hear hope. Christmas music, I think, has that power. Maybe that is the reason radio stations start playing it since October.
Music and words allow us to hear hope
A musician friend shared these words on Facebook:
“Music has so much of an influence on the brain that the type of music you hear can change the way you think and the way you view the word.”
Teachers know this and have written or accompanied lessons with music over the years, so that students can remember vital information.
I also think that one of the greatest gifts that the Jewish religion has given to Christianity is the importance of music in our devotional life. The cantor has an important part in the prayer life of the congregation. And some of the music used today in synagogues has been passed down from generation to generation.
This oral tradition is essential in the process of hearing or listening for hope. As we are reminded by Dr. Charlene Jin Lee, the writer of the Foundational Essay for the biblical practice of hope in the "Follow Me" curriculum, the people of Israel waited… and waited… and waited some more for the day of their salvation. In the meantime, things happened. War, suffering, exile, and not been able to travel home happened. The elders in each household knew that their children and their grandchildren needed to hear hope. And so, they repeated the words of the prophets, in lessons, in prayers, in music. And the people waited, as she says, “in expectant hope” knowing and believing in “God’s unfolding plan of redemption.”
This wait, as we mentioned, was not easy. It was a long wait. Sometimes they could not see any signs of God’s action. They faced trials and tribulations. They lamented being away from home and loosing family and friends. They wandered through the wilderness. Yet, they heard the hope. Yet, they persisted. Yet, they believed that God’s future would come. They heard hope and felt God’s presence with them. And they held on to the words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined." The Messiah is coming.
During the season of Advent, we take some time at church to listen to the same prophets that our faith ancestors heard. We sing music that reminds us of God’s presence and actions. And we do so amid our own trials and tribulations. We participate in the waiting, listening for songs of hope of our own, that can fill us with peace and a sense of joy in the future that sometimes can escape us.
When we are surprised by the news of a sudden death… we strain our ears to hear for the whisperings of hope that we find in the embrace and comfort of others. When we are hurt by the cries of injustice… we strain our ears to hear for the sounds of joy from those that have found the closure that only justice can give to a family that has lost a son. When we are stressed out by the warnings of a variation of a virus that does not seem to go away… we strain our ears to hear the voices of those that invite us to work for the benefit of the community that we live in, amid the madness that takes hold in our country.
And every time we strain our ears… we hold onto the hope of the ages that sings “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” And we live into the fulfilled hope of Christ the Lord that changed our stories and the history of the world forever. This moment of change, Dr Lee states “sings a new story about the ordinary and the sacred living together”. And in that song, we hear hope time and time again.
Just When All Hope Seems to Vanish
As we started with a song, we will finish with a song. “Cuando se va la esperanza” (Just When All Hope Seems to Vanish) was written by two people as well. Ester Camac Ramirez, a woman who is a Peruvian indigenous leader, and Edwin José Mora Guevara, a liturgy Professor in Costa Rica, wrote the music. He says that the hymn was born from the pastoral work that they both were facing.
The stanzas start with the same words “Cuando se va la esperanza nos habla Dios, y nos dice.” The English translation goes like this “Just when all hope seems to vanish, we hear the voice of the Spirit.”
And then, the refrain reminds us to sing: "Cantemos a nuestro Dios/quien es el Dios de la vida,/ porque él está con nosotros / creando esperanza y también libertad." I love the phrasing in English as well: “Hope is our music, and freedom our song, and together our voices will ring.”
During the trials and tribulations that they found in the world, these two leaders dared to listen to hope… and they put music to it. My hope for us during this Advent season is that we hear the music of hope… and that we are able to strain our ears to listen to the song, and unite our voices to those that throughout the ages have made the effort to keep on singing, so that the next generations can still hear hope and sing about the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” who is our hope… always.