Rev. Paula Norbert
Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1: 1-15
“Raise your voice… raise it; don’t be afraid!” – Isaiah 40:9
We gather today on this first Sunday of Advent to be together in prayer. I’m sure you have noticed that many in our local communities started decorating for the holidays early this year; I think in large part because, as one Christmas song offers, “we need a little Christmas right this very minute.” But of course, the Season of Advent is a special season for communities of faith. It is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to revisit the beautiful readings of the season from Scripture and to carve out time in our days to savor the season and prepare our hearts and our spirits for the coming of the Christ Child once again. Let us begin, O Holy One, help us to be present to this sacred season; inspire us and help us to embrace in ever deeper ways, your hopes for our world that we may prepare the way for your Son once again here among us. Amen.
Sadly, we know that the history of humanity is filled with pain–especially the pain that is accompanied by fear and has led to much oppression and violence of one people against another. And we know that this reality was also the world into which Jesus was born and through which his teachings would offer challenge and call for transformation. Our opening song today was inspired by the words of an anonymous Jewish poet, “I believe in the sun, even when the sun is not shining,” which were scrawled on a wall during the Holocaust. This theme song for our season helps call us back to that message of hope even in the midst of fear and sorrow and to reexamine the core message that Jesus sought to teach in his ministry during but a few short years here on earth. Despite the conflict and divisions have exited over the centuries, the season of Advent, the readings and hymns, call us to a different response– transformation and reconciliation through hope, love, joy, and peace. This Advent and Christmas, let us fill the night with music and light and affirm and act on the reasons why we can still “believe, even when” we are discouraged.
Both of our Scripture texts today come out of times when people needed hope for a new day. Isaiah is writing to a people in exile. The text in chapter 40 is part of “Second Isaiah” and has a much more comforting tone than the first set of chapters. There was great fear within the community to which Isaiah spoke and fear has spread throughout our world as well, both because of deep divisions within our nation and because of a virus that spreads silently and continues to cause such disruption to so many of our friends and neighbors. So comfort is where Isaiah goes and what people of all generations have yearned for. God is giving us hope for tomorrow. “Speak tenderly,” we hear as we are invited to understand one another’s deep pain and respond with calm and peace to things that we ourselves don’t fully understand. When we begin to listen, we begin to understand, when we hear each other’s pain, we are motivated to do the right thing for each other.
Many of you may know that Mark’s Gospel was the first of the four to be composed, and it is the shortest. Mark’s Gospel gets right to the action-packed narrative of Jesus’ transformative ministry. No time for birth narratives here. John the Baptist is the bard in the origin story of Christianity. Making paths for new life and making way for the baptizing of the Spirit is the key here. He implores the people to get ready because God is about to do something they couldn’t expect. We see Jesus out in the wilderness, “among the wild animals,” and angels take care of him. And here is a note of hope. Can we see those who attend to us in so many ways as the angels of God’s presence never leaving us alone in the dangers of the world? Can we hear the call to be those angels as well?
Over the course of the coming weeks, I will be referring to documentary films which speak about the ways in which hope has broken through for people in times of great struggle and suffering. At the start of our worship, we heard the song “I Believe” which was inspired by an anonymous poem that is believed to have been written by a Jewish person hiding from the Nazis in the 1940’s. The time of the Holocaust was an unimaginable time of suffering and despair and perhaps you may wonder how that might connect to our Advent worship, and yet, there were countless stories of hope and courage, of a people who were walking in darkness, that emerged from those days that have much to teach us still.
The documentary, Defiant Requiem highlights the most dramatic example of intellectual and artistic courage in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) Concentration Camp during World War II. It tells the remarkable story of Rafael Schächter, a brilliant, young Czech conductor who was arrested and sent to Terezín in 1941. He demonstrated moral leadership under the most brutal circumstances, determined to sustain courage and hope for his fellow prisoners by enriching their souls through great music. His most extraordinary act was to recruit 150 prisoners and teach them Verdi’s Requiem by rote in a dank cellar using a single score, over multiple rehearsals, and after grueling days of forced labor. The Requiem was performed on 16 occasions for fellow prisoners. The last, most infamous performance occurred on June 23, 1944 before high-ranking SS officers from Berlin and the International Red Cross to support the charade that the prisoners were treated well and flourishing. (Show trailer for film)
The film includes testimony provided by surviving members of Schächter’s choir, beautiful concert footage, cinematic dramatizations, and animation as it explores the singers’ view of Verdi as a work of defiance and resistance against the Nazis. The text of the Requiem Mass enabled them, as Schächter told the chorus, to “sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them.” (from https://www.defiantrequiem.org/film/description/)
As we heard in the film clip, the participants shared powerful statements about music and the human spirit. We know that music in so many forms can serve as a catalyst for so many things–the comfort Isaiah speaks of (“hours of pure joy”), the presence of the community of “angels” among us (“we were not in the Nazi’s world, we were in our world”), and the power of music in defiance and agency when there is no other way to respond to such evil (“it gave us strength… we were able to say it to their face”).
During recent months, I have heard many people speak of the ways in which music has lifted them up or brought them peace or helped distract them from all that was unfolding. Maybe this season, instead of mourning that we cannot sing closely and unmasked together, we can raise our appreciation of music in our lives so that when we can sing freely together again, it will be with renewed joy and conviction.
For our closing music this morning, we will hear a Christmas Carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, which was based on a poem written long ago. Maine’s own poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem at Harvard on Christmas Day in 1863 during the heart of the Civil War. His wife had died tragically in a fire and he had just found out that his son had been injured as a soldier for the Union. As he heard the sound of bells in the distance, he began to write, spurred on by his sorrow at the state of humankind:
“And in despair, I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to [all].”
-And yet hope wins out as he reached the fourth verse:
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth [not] sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to [all].”
And so I invite you to take time to surround yourself with the beauty and inspiration of music during this Advent Season. Let it renew you; let it bring you comfort and peace; and let it be a foundation from which you may prepare for the true meaning of Christmas, the hope of Christ, in our lives in the days ahead. Amen.