Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Luke 2:13-14
Nowadays, the music begins around Halloween. We hear it where retailers hope it touches something deep within us and prompts us to swipe our cards. Marketers know that sacred, old songs can lift us over boundaries and limits that usually constrain us. Few recall, however, that even God needed music to sell the uniquely precious thing that lies at the heart of this season.
Luke’s gospel tells how, when the fullness of time had come for the Lord of heaven and earth to take on flesh and blood, neither old Zechariah nor young Mary could believe or understand. So, mighty Gabriel had to sing to both about the power of God’s Spirit. They got it. Soon Mary and Zechariah sang their own Spirit-filled canticles, which we’ve repeated more times than even angels can count.
When the boundary between the almighty and the vulnerable, the eternal and the mortal, was crossed that night in a birthing near Bethlehem, nothing but a life spent loving could explain it, and only a song could begin to announce it. Hence, angels appeared and sang again, this time using few words, out in the boondocks, for bedazzled shepherds. If you stretch the word “Gloria!” into 20 or 30 syllables while moving up and down the musical scale, you begin to get the idea. We haven’t enough words for this task, but if you linger long enough in one, the mystery takes hold of you. The Spirit grasps you, heart and soul, and never lets you go.
The child wrapped that night in swaddling clothes would learn this many times, as on that last, dark day when again he found himself naked and set out as food, this time for vultures. The Spirit had a song ready for him then. With a bedtime prayer he’d learned as a child, he sang himself over the boundary. “Into your hands I commit my spirit, O Lord, faithful God.”
We, too, have swaddling clothes—our baptismal garments, which wrap us tightly in every state of dress or undress. And we have the Spirit’s songs, filled with promise and the power to give light in the darkness, hope amid sorrow, and ultimately to lift us across the boundary between life and death, death and life.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Rev. Dr. Fred Neidner taught biblical studies in Valparaiso University’s Department of Theology for 40 years.