That Glorious Song of Old

MIDNIGHT MASS Isaiah 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

Tonight we are using a new carol sheet. So many words telling the same story, so much mystery bound in the dancing lines of musical notes. We know the songs, we know the words, but when do we give those words a chance to sink in, breathe inside of us and let their story inhabit us? Just for a moment let’s take one of those carols and explore it a little more closely.

‘It came upon the midnight clear…’
For many of us, probably for most of us, it is not often that we get a chance to really experience silence. When we do, we notice it. You can be somewhere – on a hillside, out in a boat on a lake, in the heart of a valley – and suddenly you can become aware of the silence, there is a clarity in the air, in the very fabric of the atmosphere that is not an absence of noise, rather it is almost the presence of a rare and precious element. In the moment you sense it you are changed, made cleaner, clearer, purer, and then almost as soon as you have discerned it, it is gone.

‘That glorious song of old,’
We are surrounded by noise, everyday, almost all the time and much of that noise is the trilling, rhythmical, beating, rapping, warbling, jingling of music and song. From ring tones to adverts to signature tunes, music surrounds us. Often it reaches us in a garbled form – the pounding, pounding techno beat thumping out from a car sat at the lights; the tsk tsk leaking from headphones; the manic, tinny and urgent wail of a mobile phone. Music has become the backdrop to daily life, instantly available and instantly forgettable, the glory of the song lost in a muddle of tunes.

‘From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:’
Today music is everywhere, available so easily to all who can hear. It is captured and codified, categorised and analysed. In previous times music was a luxury. On those special occasions when it was heard it would have made a deep and lasting impression, a life-time experience to be savoured and reflected upon. Music was like gold leaf blown on the wind, a fleeting sparkle, then gone, disintegrated into a thousand pieces, never to be caught again.

‘The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing’

‘Still through the cloven skies they come,’
The message they bring is not just for that first Christmas night, it is not just for tonight, or for tomorrow, it is for every minute of every hour of every day. But what is it?

You’ve just heard it, in our Gospel reading a few minutes ago: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ Words – now they really are everywhere – Babel sounds: TV clips, social media updates, politician speak, management jargon, technical slang, shopping lists and product manuals, cereal packets, newspaper print, books and railway announcements, government reports, texts and emails and emails and texts, letters and telephone conversations heard from the other side of carriage.

We have a seemingly endless treasury of words and we are profligate with them, scattering them to the winds with no thought to their preciousness. They are a resource of such bounty that our ancient ancestors, for whom every written word was dearly bought in terms of time, education, resources, materials, would be open mouthed with amazement at our daily cascades, fountains, raging torrents of spilled words.

What would Joseph, Jesus’s father, have made of our wordiness? He was a carpenter, a man whose livelihood depended on carefully choosing the right tools for the job and keeping them honed, oiled, sharp and in trim. A man who would prudently select each piece of timber, checking the grain, weight, strength to make sure that it was suitable for the task and that there would be minimum waste. He would have been the sort of man who would be abstemious in his use of words, clear, precise, no fuss, no unnecessary embellishments. How much does he have to say in the Gospels? Very little, but what he does is to the point.

How much of his own habits and manners did he pass down to his son? Perhaps it is not much of a leap from wood to words. Jesus speaks a great deal in the Gospels, but his words are not chit chat, his parables and prayers and disputations are each constructed with a particular task to achieve.

Then what would mother Mary say about our verbal outpourings? Words sprouted from her throat like so many blossoming day lilies. ‘My soul does glorify the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ A beautiful joyous tumbling out of praise and prophecy. Yet look behind each word and phrase and you will find that it is steeped in the  history and religious language of her people. Each line is full of multiple allusions to other verses of Scripture. Mary uses her words with awe but also with precision.

‘And man, at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring:
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.’
Christmas is such a clamorous time. From sleigh bells ringing to cash tills chinging, from tv schedules to party poppers and crackers, there seems to be no space for silence. Some of that noise, that sensual excess is to blot out the bad stuff – the wars, the hunger, the brokenness, the hatred, the loneliness, the violence, the neglect, the terror – that occurs every day and is made ever present in our lives by all those words we read and hear in the rolling, rolling, rolling news.

But there is a love-song being sung to us. We’ve already heard it: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ God loves us so much that he became flesh, became human, became one of us, immersed in the clangour of survival, made frail and vulnerable for the sake of giving us the chance to hear his voice, understand his message and share his love.

‘When, with the ever-circling years
comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.’

From the beginning of creation and throughout the ages God has been singing the same song, that he is in partnership with us, that he is God among us – Emmanuel – the Word made flesh – Christ, Jesus, the one who walked in the Garden and walked this earth with us, was born into poverty, suffered and died for one reason only that he loves us and he loves us and he loves us and if we can accept his love, then we can learn his song and sing it back.

It is only then, when we take part in the song, that
‘peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling.’
Peace won’t come because God imposes it but because we take up the refrain and make it happen.

To do that we need to know the song, discern it through the babble of noise. And so, despite our love for noise, music, words, bright lights and big tunes, despite our love for the brash, bold vigour of Christmas, if we are to know the meaning of Christ’s mass, we need to give ourselves space, turn low the lights, turn off the tv, open our souls and listen and in the silence we might just catch the angel song, and our hearts we might just become part of the Word made flesh.

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