The month of December means Handel’s Messiah is playing in my house. My husband grew up in a home where music was life. His mother sings every chance she gets, and his father can hardly speak when he hears beautiful choral music (St. Olaf’s Christmas reliably ushers him into the throne of heaven itself!). My people hail from the hills of East Tennessee, and while I also love chorale music, I am most thankful for my family legacy when we are gathered around a piano, singing shape notes with a few guitars, banjos and a mandolin thrown in. Family “sangins” were serious business in my world; Christmas brings these memories up for me, and remind me that Christmas carols are an important part of the way I experience Advent.
I teach a class on Christ, race and culture at my church, and while I appreciate the opportunity, it usually means I miss the corporate worship time. This is a chronic tension I feel because I love to sing, but it never stings more deeply than during Advent. There is something about singing those familiar carols together that reminds me that my understanding of the world is rooted in a God who calls me into the great “us” of humankind, not into my own private pursuit of God or moral goodness.
Music reminds us we are better together, and this is why it is so pivotal to the way I approach God. Even when we are very bad at understanding and appreciating each other (as we often, in fact, are), music seems to remind us that we are best when we work together. I noticed a few years ago that many pop songs on the radio had choruses sung by large groups of people. They beg us to sing along. From Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” to Phillip Philip’s “Home” to DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” to U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, pop hits contain lyrics recorded as sing-alongs. My life affords me the opportunity to spend large quantities of time with people roughly under 30, and when I hear them sing along to the radio I am reminded that some thing in all of us finds belonging when we sing along with others.
This realization matters particularly at Advent because the promise of the Messiah, the One Advent expects and waits for, is very much delighted with the idea of singing along. So much of western Christianity has rejected the importance of the communal nature of God in favor of a faith locked into the personal pursuit of the Divine. The experience of a faith journey for many in American Protestantism is wholly about personal devotion to Christ and obedient evangelism. Advent, however, reminds us that the faith journey, as designed by God and modeled by the life of Christ, is very much a communal affair.
The prophecy which Handel memorialized in the Messiah, and which Christ quoted in his declaration of public service, is from Isaiah.
Advent, and the Christmas moment it looks toward, is about the Messiah coming to make things right for broken people. A glance at this prophecy, which Christ himself claimed to embody, reminds us that the Messiah did not only come to justify individuals, but also to bring justice and equity to the present world. Advent looks toward God’s cosmic invitation to humanity to sing along with Him, to join the work of bringing good news to the poor and wounded in every practical way.
This Advent, I would like to suggest that the Messiah came and is coming to bring righteousness. Not only to justify us and make us righteous, but to invite us into the work of making things right for all our neighbors. The highest devotion for a follower of Christ is not to live a life devoted only to knowing God personally, but to follow Him in the work of making things right for those around you. To commit myself not to the flourishing of me, but to the deep right-ness—the peace and Shalom—of the we.
Advent celebrates the fact that God’s fullness was revealed when Jesus sacrificed all His capital for the flourishing of others. Might we best experience Advent by committing ourselves to the flourishing of the communities around us? We must preach the good news to our own poor selves, but we cannot stop there. Because the fullness of the purpose of the Messiah is only realized through sacrificial service to others, we cannot reflect on Advent by only focusing on our own interior lives.
This Advent, think about the reason your heart responds to meals and parties and carols sung together. Our core selves already know we are looking for good news that works best in community. We simply cannot understand the peace of Christmas unless we understand the needs and gifts of the communities in which we live. Sing along. It’s more festive that way.