Something, somewhere, amid the lyrics and liturgies of this Advent and Christmas cycle needs to catch all of us off guard with its beauty, its clarity, or the profound simplicity of its gospel message.
I was a grad student at Concordia College (now University) in River Forest, Illinois, when my faculty advisor, Carl Schalk, was composing the tune, and anthem settings, of Jaroslav Vajda’s iconic hymn “Before the Marvel of This Night” (performed by the St. Olaf Choral Ensembles). The first time I heard the text and tune together, I was enraptured (a word I may have used twice before in my life). I still am.
The words found their inspiration in Vajda’s experience as a choral singer and conductor. The hymn imagines the final directions that were given to the angelic choir (possibly the same ones who sang as creation itself was unfolding?) before they were deployed into the Judean skies to herald the birth of the world’s Messiah. Schalk’s tune, characteristically sensitive to the emotion, as well as the content of the text, creates a sense of holy awe, hyper-charged with anticipation. The fallen world wouldn’t know what hit it!
The “instructions” to the winged choristers are as simple as they are profound. Before you do anything else, worship—fold your wings and bow. Then, shock and awe! Proclaim God’s shalom:
Before the marvel of this night, adoring, fold your wings and bow,
Then tear the sky apart with light, and with your news the world endow.
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace, that fear and death and sorrow cease:
Sing peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace!
Don’t worry about the neighbors. Wake up the sleeping world! The shepherds need to hear this news (and the sheep will get over it). “This is the day the LORD has made!” Rejoice! Be Glad! Give that poor, benighted earth a “teasing taste” of the Kingdom this infant King will one day teach them to pray for—the Promise only the Christ can fulfill:
Awake the sleeping world with song, this is the day the Lord has made.
Assemble here, celestial throng, in royal splendor come arrayed.
Give earth a glimpse of heav’nly bliss, a teasing taste of what they miss:
Sing bliss, sing bliss, sing endless bliss, sing bliss, sing endless bliss!
Finally, this command—straight from the innermost heart of the Trinity:
The love that we have always known, our constant joy and endless light,
Now to the loveless world be shown, now break upon its deathly night.
Into one song compress the love that rules our universe above:
Sing love, sing love, sing God is love, sing love, sing God is love!
Let that text sink in for a moment…
Three plus decades, six short blocks, and a lifetime away from my initial encounter with this anthem, the choir of First Presbyterian Church, River Forest, Ill., is rehearsing it for the opening of our 2017 Christmas Concert. I have taught or sung this anthem almost annually in different types of congregational settings across several different states. It is, for me, a long-treasured Christmas staple. But this year, for some reason, I find myself weeping whenever I sing these words—a catch forming in my throat even when I hear the unmistakable flow of the Schalk introduction. Why this? Why now?
Perhaps my emotional response can be attributed to the weight of our accumulated reality in 2017—the bloated, blundering leadership of a once-great nation, the accelerating demise of public civility, rampant accusations of sexual abuse (and the seemingly little impact they are having on the culture that nurtures those actions), the reality of gang violence and mass shootings, carjackings as close as the corner bank, the bludgeoning the gospel is taking from noisy people on the right, on the left, and across the academy, the opioid crisis in many places and the teen suicide crisis in others—the list goes on. (And that’s just in one part of the First World.) I know our global situation is no worse in December 2017 than it has ever been, and far better than it was the night the Word became flesh and began his dwelling among us. But it is our reality—our dogged daily reminder of the depravity and desperation of a world that is largely ignorant of or allergic to its Savior.
Or, my response might be to the tenacious truth of the gospel itself: the Word did become flesh, and the world is being redeemed. The good news is true. Not that I’ve doubted any of this before, but perhaps this season I am experiencing (and desiring to share) more of what C. S. Lewis called “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” Maybe it’s the sympathetic resonance of the gospel—the Truth behind the truth of the birth we celebrate, the glory about which we sing, the shalom, the endless bliss, the Love that rules the universe above, that is becoming more tangible this year, the Light made brighter by the darkness. After all, Lewis went on to say:
Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache” (from The Weight of Glory).
In the end of the day, whatever the trigger, I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to weep when we sing this text this year. Perhaps it is part of the stirring of a deeper spiritual healing. If so, I’ll take it—and pray the same for you. Something, somewhere, amid the lyrics and liturgies of this Advent and Christmas cycle needs to catch all of us off guard with its beauty, its clarity, or the profound simplicity of its gospel message. When that happens, we dare not be afraid to weep at the marvel of that night—it is, most likely, a teasing taste of what we miss.