A fellow pastor recently shared a story about trying to get to her daughter’s Christmas vesper’s service at Smith College in Northampton Massachusetts.
She and her family live about five hours away from the college, so they were all pretty stressed out about the possibility of being late for the service. To make matters worse, they received a bit of news that could further delay their arrival: a group of students had organized a protest at the same time and location as the vespers service. In fact, the intent of the protestors was to use their march to shut down that particular church service.
There was nothing particularly unique or controversial planned for that service; it was to be the typical evening prayer service that is found in many types of churches. Scripture readings, prayers, and a simple liturgy were planned. Taking place in December, the scriptures, songs, prayers and liturgy of that service echoed the themes of the Christmas and advent seasons.
The organizers of the protest hoped to shut down that church service because, in the words of one the protestors, “people need protest songs, not choir songs.” Indeed, when the pastor arrived at the service, she saw someone holding a sign that said, “No justice, no Christmas.”
Reflecting on this event weeks later, the pastor wrote, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the protestors don’t know the Christmas story.” The church has failed at sharing the Christmas story with them and others like them. The church has stood back and allowed the chintzy lollipops and gumdrops, candy canes and snowmen, shopping and spending version of Christmas to speak louder than the scriptural Christmas message.
We haven’t done our part to tell this version of the story. They don’t know that the justice they demand is exactly what the advent message of the church demands, for advent is a time in which the scriptures of long ago calls for justice to take root in a dry, dessert and, and for streams of righteousness to flow and water that tree so that justice might grow and swell and fill the land. Advent is a time in which we cry out for God to save us. It is a time when we are called to examine our own lives and seek ways that we can participate in what God is doing to set this world right.
Listen to the words of the anthem our bell choir just performed, a familiar tune: “Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.” Or later in that same hymn: Come O God, disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadow put to flight.’
Or the words of the hymn we will sing in a few minutes: “Christ’s rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth, and love.”
Or the words of the hymn we just sang: “Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us.”
The choir songs of advent are protest songs.
They are songs that protest the injustices that exist in our world. They are songs that protest the darkness that closes in around us. They are songs that protest against all in this world that is not right.
And these songs find their origin in the prophets of old.
The words we read from Isaiah this morning are some of the most powerful words in scripture. They too protest against all that is not right, and they speak of a time when all will be made well.
Listen again to these words:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.”
The message of the advent season—the message of the carols we sing—is that this time has come, that Jesus Christ brings about the fulfillment of God’s promise. That a child born in Bethlehem fulfills this promise. That a time of hope has come and will come again.
When this child is born, it is God’s protest against all the voices that tell us that we are not enough. It is God’s protest against our own behavior with each other that seeks to build walls or separate one from another rather than seeking cooperation and peace. It is God’s protest against all those forces that step on the backs of the powerless in order to claw out more for the powerful. It is a protest against all that separates us from each other and from God. It is a protest against all the ways in which we and this world are not how God intended it to be.
I know that we often don’t want to hear songs of protest. We want to hear songs of joy and peace and love. But we cannot forget, that joy and peace and love for all is not possible without justice for all.
The coming of the Christ child brings that justice to fruition. The day when Christ comes again will bring that justice to completion. But until that time comes, God calls us to sing out against injustice and to work to make justice a reality.
The vespers service at Smith College in Northampton Massachusetts happened as planned. The pastor arrived on time. The crowd allowed her and other worshipers to pass. During the quiet and meditative sections of the service, the worshippers inside the church could hear the voices of the protestors singing outside.
At the end of the vespers service, the Dean of Religious Life at Smith went outside to invite the protestors in so they might sing their version of protest songs inside, as a closing part of that worship service. So the protestors walked in with their banners and slowly began to sing.
Here is how she described that moment: “They sounded apprehensive at first. We listened intently to pick out the words: ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.’ Then, their voices swelled and the melody spread throughout the congregation. Feet stamped, hands clapped, and harmonies expanded. We all sang the same song,” she concluded (Martha Spong, “On the Wrong Side of Vespers,” the blog of the Christian Century, December 2014).
I wonder if a few of those in attendance that day--both those outside the church and those inside the church--I wonder if they heard the story of Christmas in a different way.
"O come, O come, Emmanuel, for we who believe in freedom cannot rest until you come."