Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent Four: Sing Alleluia

Why do humans sing?

Browse through the musings of neurologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and it quickly becomes clear: humans have engaged in music and song as long as there have been humans, and there is no provable scientific reason.

detail from Cantoria, Luca della Robbia, Firenze, 1431-38
Yes, it’s likely that some music plays a role in mate selection, as is the case with birds, whales, other creatures that sing.

And some plays a role in building community, aligning the singer with cultural goals or norms, or creating a shared emotional response.

And some songs have a role in passing on knowledge, sharing stories, assisting memory of otherwise boring details.

But those explanations fall far short of the human experience of song. Cambridge musicologist Ian Cross, describing theories of music, concludes: “Although there have been some fabulous experimental studies of music perception, music is a bit too wild to be trapped in the lab.”  

Music is one of those human experiences that steps beyond the boundaries of scientific determinism. It can’t be tracked back to material causes; attempts to explain its origins or biological purposes fall flat. Yet it can be tracked forward: it’s not hard to show the deep influence of music on motivation, emotional state, willingness to work together. Exposure to music can increase intelligence, improve study skills, even alter the size and shape of the brain.    

I mentioned in anearlier post my personal affinity with Christmas carols. As a kid, I loved to sing them, in our elementary school chorus, in a short-lived children’s choir at our church, in our church’s occasional Christmas visits to local nursing homes.  I remember watching mouths move along with our songs, old voices joining in. In spaces that felt confining and a little scary, something bright and free and embracing drew us close, as if angels were lending their voices, as if the song held all of us in a warm and loving embrace, and stirred hopes we’d long forgotten. For a few minutes, the isolation of the aged and the insecurity of the young were caught in melody far beyond us, a song of glory, of joy, of promise.

Our small church was part of an international network of churches, and I remember, at the age of 12 or so, attending a gathering in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. Standing in an upper tier, I sang with thousands of voices as followers of Christ from dozens of nations, in bright traditional dress, processed down the aisles to take their places on the stage.  I had never grasped the depth and breadth of my faith, but standing there singing, it occurred to me that I was part of a community that spanned oceans, cultures, centuries, that reached beyond time:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
detail from Canoria, Luca della Robbia,
Firenze, 1431-38

Strange how certain words take us past cognitive experience and allow us access into something else: Alleluia is one of those. Literally, it means “Praise Yahweh.” Sing it in the right frame of mind and heart and we find ourselves far beyond our own meager offerings of praise in a place of communion with stars, angels, all the company of heaven: 
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
   praise him, all his heavenly hosts
Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the skies. 
     (from Psalm 148) 
Singing alleluia in Philharmonic Hall gave me a glimpse of the harmony heaven might offer. That vision was expanded in times of song and prayer at Truro Church, a charismatic, liturgical, worship-oriented church we attended for fourteen years in Fairfax, Virginia. Communion hymns would open into free-form worship, with voices raised in words known and unknown, some carrying the tune of the music we’d been singing, others lifting into cadences inspired by an inner music, or half-remembered melody. The resulting sound was so multi-layered, and so breathtakingly beautiful, I sometimes stood silent to listen, and other times lifted my voice to sing along. No composer could construct harmonies so complex and free, or conduct as gently the mysterious melting back toward hushed, attentive silence.

Since then, I’ve had that same sense of heaven leaning near when I’ve sung alleluia with teams of tired, committed teens and young adults in the battered courtyard of an inner city church. I’ve imagined angel voices joining when singing with Christian friends from other countries, when we’ve tried singing each other’s words, or agreed to sing our own simultaneously, merging in the alleluias, finding unity in our place of praise. 
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.
   (from Psalm 148)
When I sing the songs of Christmas, I find myself small, in a healthy, comforting way: my voice is one of many. I am part of something very large: one of God’s loved creatures, part of the song of whales, birds, mice, trees, mountains.

And I find my inner compass realigned. My current situation is fragile and fleeting; reality is larger. I can hold the good things God gives me lightly: there is greater good ahead. And I can relax my grip on my current griefs; the heartbreak of this life is not the last word.

The last word is Alleluiah.

So in the days ahead I’ll be singing.

With families grieving the loss of treasured children.

With loved ones caught in chronic conditions that have no discovered cure.

With friends who struggle with poverty, unemployment, bitter disappointment, and friends whose stories point to God’s intervention in times of near despair.

With my northern Uganda friends, who will be dancing as they sing.

With my Bolivian friends, waving bright banners in worship.

With friends in churches large and small, accompanied by brilliant organ song, ancient pianos, keyboards, guitars, drums.

With men and women I’ll never meet, singing alleluia in prisons, underground churches, in small quiet gatherings in private homes, in crowds of thousands in deserts or city squares.

Singing with brothers and sisters no longer visible to the human eye, some I know and remember with thanksgiving, some who went on long before, that cloud of witnesses that joins us as we sing.

We’ll be singing alleluiah.

The song the angels sang on that first Christmas night, two thousand years ago.

The song of praise and thanks and love that was the first pulse of the first cells, the first breath of the first lungs, the first thought of the first mind.

A song that began before history.

A song that will never end. 
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
    with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
    through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
    that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
          (from Psalm 89­)

This is the last in a four-week Advent series. Other Advent posts:

The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011

Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 
Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010