Singing in a pandemic – 25 December, 2021
It did not surprise me that one of my last work duties for 2021 – apart from writing and delivering one and half sermons (the half will be tomorrow) – was to contact the ACT Covid Helpline and ask a question about singing.
Singing has gone through a lot of iterations during this pandemic. We have sung with masks on and off! We have let everyone sing, have minimised (or Morissonised) singing, have had just the choir singing (one of our best recruitment strategies in years!) and have even been told we could only have three in the church – minister, zoom operator, and translator. At which point I emailed James and asked, “How good is your sign language?” and he emailed back, “I’d say I’m translating at all times the glory of God through the vehicle of music!” Amen to that, brother! Let me hear an Amen!
But we have not stopped singing.
Something I’ve discovered in the past two years is that people have experienced pandemics at other times in history as well – and that they did not stop singing either!
A few months ago, in our morning zoom prayers (another pandemic response) we listened to a hymn that seemed to be written for today – John Ryland’s ‘Sovereign Ruler of the Skies’, “plagues and deaths around me fly” – but was actually written in eighteenth century England, and it led me to an article, a brief historical introduction, to pandemic hymns.
Which said that, “hymn writing and singing are incarnational acts…”
They are incarnational acts because they are shaped by the cultural, social, theological and political issues of their day. Hymns from earlier centuries don’t mention pandemics. That’s a modern word. But they do refer to ‘plague’, both as a specific event and as a “persistent chronic condition of society”. It is a reminder of how long, recurring, and devastating plagues were in periods before the kind of medical knowledge we have now, and for that we can be very thankful.
The hymn the angels sing in our passage today – our whole Luke passage in fact – is shaped by the cultural, social, theological, and political issues of that day. Four times in the first five verses we hear the word ‘register’, a reminder of the pervasive and oppressive Roman imperial system. But the angel appropriates the language of empire. “I bring you good news,” the shepherds are told. “Euangelion!” Euangelion was a word that belonged to Caesar. “Euangelion! Caesar has been victorious!” But, now, euangelion is good news for all the people – news of a different kingdom of justice and peace and wholeness.
Being shaped by cultural, social, theological, and political issues can also be problematic. Many of the historic pandemic hymns take the view that plagues are God’s punishment on a sinful humanity, and we still find that desire for a scapegoat deep within us – whether it is the Chinese or small children as super spreaders or identifying patient zero or the constant bickering between state jurisdictions.
In contrast to this, what we hear in Luke’s gospel, is that God – rather than standing apart from us in judgment – rather than distancing Godself from our suffering and sin – has engaged in the ultimate incarnational act; has chosen to willingly, wholly, vulnerably enter our humanity – to become human. Rather than pronounce judgement on us, God comes to show us what love looks like – even when love costs God everything.
Writing and singing hymns is also an incarnational act when we pay attention, when we give thanks and praise for the small signs of God’s life and presence among us.
This is what the shepherds do in our passage. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” the angel tells them. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And they go and this is what they find, a child, wrapped in bands of cloth, laying in a manger, most likely not in a stable, but in the common living space shared by people and animals in a peasant home. And they return, in verse 20 to their fields, “singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen.” They give thanks for the small signs of God’s life and presence among them.
The hymn we will sing in a moment was written in the early seventeenth century, by a pastor, Martin Rickart, who lived not only through plague, but also war and famine, but this hymn – written as a simple prayer before what were undoubtedly very simple, probably inadequate, meals – resounds with joy, resounds with thankfulness; “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices….who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.” Again, performing an incarnational act of giving thanks for the small signs of God’s life and presence among us.
As an incarnational act this day, can we give thanks for the small signs of God’s life and presence among us – the countless gifts of love we have received – God’s presence, God’s forgiveness and love, the small kindnesses of others, the opportunity to gather today, the gifts and time we share with others, the opportunity to sing our praises to God?
Because we also need to know that hymn writing and singing are incarnational because, as the article says, “at their best [they] are attempts to join the heavenly voices that are always singing in anticipation” of God’s coming kingdom. “No matter how small the earthly gathering,” it goes on, “or, as in these days, [how distanced we are], …we are in perpetual antiphonal dialogue with our celestial choral counterparts.” We are singing with the angels today, joining in their song of praise, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…”
You might be thinking this is a strange time for the angels’ song; soaring case numbers, the prospect of more deaths, reimposed restrictions, and a future that continues to be uncertain. Perhaps the shepherds also thought that – as they made their way back in the dark to their flocks – but they kept singing. Perhaps Martin Rinkart thought that during decades of war, when 8,000 died of plague in Eilenburg, Germany, when his own wife died, when he struggled to keep his family alive while sharing food with those gathered at his door, and yet he kept singing! He writes what the article calls a totally inexplicable hymn – one of the most exuberant doxologies in hymnic history! And we are called to do the same. To borrow James’s expression, even in our current situation and the greater challenges facing others around our world – like those in Bangladesh we support in our Christmas Offering – we are translating at all times the glory of God through the vehicle of our singing!
So let us keep singing. Let us keep singing as an act of incarnation with all who suffer the impacts of Covid, knowing that God is with us in our suffering; that nothing separates us from God’s love. Let us keep singing as an act of incarnation giving thanks and praise for the small signs of God’s presence and life among us, and let us keep singing – with the angels – as an act of incarnation of the kingdom of God come to us in the birth of Jesus. Let us sing inexplicably exuberant hymns of faith! Let us sing them now – Now thank we all our God.
A Christmas blessing: May your Christmas season be restorative with the joy of new born hope, may your paper bonbon hats be strong, and may all your carols be theologically and musically excellent.
We rejoice in God’s presence in our lives,
and in God’s unique presence in the life of Jesus—
born of Mary, growing through childhood into an adult ministry,
in all his life manifesting the peace, love, and justice of God;
his voice undimmed by the centuries
his call and his promise as clear to us
as it was to his disciples so long ago.(Let’s pray)
Come to us, Lord Jesus,
be born in us this day,
in our hearts, our minds, our lives.
May the light of your life be kindled in us,
and shine out to others the news of great joy,
God with us, God for us, God in us.
Over the last four weeks, during the season of Advent, we have lit four candles for hope, peace, joy, and love – four promises offered to us by God, made manifest in Jesus – and so today we also light the Christ candle.
In Christ we find the hope of a world transformed, the peace that follows justice, the joy of lives restored, the love that embraces every one of us.
In Christ we find light and life, and the courage to be like him, answering his call and following in his footsteps.
[All candles are lit]
Prayers of Intercession
In this time of plague, of pandemic, we pray:
When we aren’t sure, God, help us be calm;
when information comes from all sides, correct and not, help us to discern;
when fear makes it hard to breathe,
and anxiety seems to be the order of the day, slow us down, God;
help us to reach out with our hearts, when we can’t touch with our hands;
help us to be socially connected, when we have to be socially distant;
help us to love as perfectly as we can, knowing that “perfect love casts out all fear.”
For the doctors, we pray, for the nurses, we pray,
For all who care in nursing homes or care for people at home, we pray,
for the lab technicians, all who staff our testing centres,
our chief health officers and our politicians, we pray,
for epidemiologists and medical researchers, we pray
and those who advocate for people who cannot afford vaccines, we pray.
For all those who are sick or recovering, we pray – those known and loved in this congregation – Beth, Richard, Lisa, Bev, Colin, Siriphan, Alan, Guy, Val and Warwick – and others who come to mind now…
and for those who are grieving for loved ones. We pray for the Clark family this Christmas, for the Hingleys, for Don White, for Matthew Walker, Claire and Georgie, and for Ginny Graylin.
for all who are affected, all around the world…we pray.
May we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty,
clothe the naked and house those without homes;
may we walk with those who feel they are alone,
and may we do all that we can to bring wholeness—
in spite of the epidemic,
in spite of the fear.
Help us, O God, that we might help each other.
In the love of the Creator,
in the name of the Healer,
in the life of the Holy Spirit that is in all and with all, we pray.
May it be so. Amen.
~ written by the Right Rev. Richard Bott. Posted on the United Church of Canada website. https://www.united-church.ca/prayers/prayer-during-times-covid-19
As we sing our hope and live our love and offer our gifts,
may we become imitators of you, Gracious God,
who holds nothing back from us,
but is generous and gracious with all that is yours.
In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
It has been done!
The good news has been shared,
The child has been wrapped in bands of cloth
And laid in a manger!
But that is the beginning of the story, the song;
a story that has not yet ended,
a song in which we all have a part.
So we go out to live the story,
to tell the Hope that is born among us this Christmas,
to share the Love with the world,
to be agents of Peace in times of trouble,
to sing songs of deep and abiding Joy.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
In the name of Christ – born for us today! – Amen.