A couple of weeks ago, Corrie and I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the bio-pic of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. If you’re around my age, Queen’s music was, and perhaps still is, part of the soundtrack of your autobiography. The lyrics, the showmanship, Freddy’s incredible voice—and those songs, Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions, they defined an era, a genre within Rock music, and decades later, they are still ubiquitous, not only on playlists but at sporting events and in popular culture. The movie begins and ends at LiveAid 1986, when Freddy Mercury, already suffering from HIV/Aids and the band gave a show-stopping performance. It was a moment of cultural significance, artistic expression, cries of hope and pain that captured the world in an experience of such effervescence that one might call it a religious experience.
Music does that. Whether it’s a stadium performance with a rock band in front of tens of thousands of fans, a small jazz combo like John Coltrane’s in an intimate club, opera, or yes, even in a worship service, music transports and transforms us, helps us communicate our deepest emotions, our faith and our doubt; music also shapes our experiences; creates experiences for us, affirms or calls into question who we are, who God is, our pain, our hope.
Sometimes, we can’t sing or make music. One of the most powerful psalms emerged during the exile of Judeans in Babylon in the 5thcentury BCE (Psalm 137):
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
Today, as Christians have for two thousand years, we sang the Song of Zechariah as our psalm or response. It’s one of four songs that Luke includes in his story of the nativity. One of those songs, the Gloria, sung by the angels when they appeared to the shepherds, we sing each Sunday during the Eucharist. The other songs appear regularly in the daily office, morning and evening prayer: the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the song of Simeon, the nunc dimittis, which is sung at Evening Prayer, and the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which we just said together.
These songs likely were not composed by Luke, but were taken and adapted by him from songs that Christians were already singing in their worship. Whether or not they come from the people or angels, in whose mouth Luke placed them, they reflect an even deeper tradition for all of them are bathed in the language, imagery, and poetry of Jewish worship and Hebrew scriptures.
Still it’s important to pay attention to the context and to the lips where Luke places these songs. In Zechariah’s case, he hadn’t been able to sing, or speak for nine months. You may recall the story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were elderly, childless. Zechariah was a priest. The story goes that he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense, quite likely a great honor and probably the only time he did it in his life, and while he was there by himself, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and promised that he and Elizabeth would have a child. Zechariah was rather skeptical about the probability of this ever happening, and when he expressed his doubts, Gabriel struck him speechless for the duration of the pregnancy.
The child was born and on the 8thday, as he was about to be circumcised, and still speechless, Zechariah wrote out instructions that the baby should be named John. As soon as he did that, his voice returned and he began to praise God. Luke continues, “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.”
Now, I can’t imagine being silent for nine months, and I can’t imagine that after nine months of silence, the first thing I would do would be to praise God. But I do know this about silence, that it allows us to think and reflect before we speak, and with nine months of silence, and uncertainty about whether the silence was just temporary as Gabriel said, or would be permanent, I think I probably would think carefully, very carefully about what words I would speak when the ability to speak came back.
But Luke doesn’t say that this song was the product of careful reflection and composition over the course of nine months. He offers a rather different account of its composition—Zechariah, Luke says, was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. This prophecy, this Spirit-filled song, fairly bursts with scriptural allusions. It’s as if Zechariah, having nine months of silence to reflect on his experience and on his promised son, has internalized all of salvation history, the whole story of scripture, and recasts it in light of the hope he now has.
It’s fitting that the name Zechariah means “God remembers” for Zechariah sings of God’s remembering God’s people. Zechariah sings of God’s promises, to raise up a mighty nation, to save “us”—Zechariah includes himself in this promise of salvation—from our enemies; to show mercy to our fathers; to set us free to worship God without fear.
In the last section of the psalm, Zechariah turns to the promises embodied in his own son, John the Baptist, who would be the prophet, not only of God’s promises, but also prepare the way for the one who was still to come, the one who would usher in God’s reign.
This one, Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be a harbinger, a sign of that which was to come, the dawn of salvation, not salvation itself. John offered hope and pointed away from himself to the Christ. But through him, we begin to see, recognize, and experience “the tender compassion of our God.” That lovely phrase not only evokes images of a mother embracing her new-born child, as the joyful and incredulous Elizabeth was likely cradling her infant son John, it also invites us to imagine God’s maternal, nurturing love for us and for all creation, a love we experience and know in and through Christ’s love for us.
“Tender compassion” reminds as well that God’s love and mercy for us, as powerful as it may be, is also an invitation, not an imposition. It requires us to pay attention, to be vulnerable and open, to allow ourselves to see and experience that tender compassion in spite of the noise and violence of our world. Like the breaking dawn that we see only if we ourselves are already awake, and if we lift our eyes away from ourselves and our concerns to the horizon, God’s tender compassion is easily overlooked, missed in the noise of all that competes for our attention. God’s tender compassion is a melody played on a single note, not the cacophony of a rock band in a stadium.
Zechariah sang his song after nine months of silence, imposed on him as punishment by Gabriel. The silence of the exiles’ harps as they hung on trees in Babylon was a silence caused by grief, oppression, and despair. We may be in similar places in our own lives, because of personal pain and suffering, or that of loved ones. We may feel hopelessness, despair, oppression as the world around us careens from one disaster to the next. Images and stories from across the globe make real the suffering of our fellow humans, the fact that like Zechariah, they too, cannot open their mouths to sing, or if they do, their songs are laments or the blues.
Such songs can also be prophesies—they can call us out of our complacency, our stupor, our self-deception. They can wake us to the pain and suffering of the world around us; they can also, like Zechariah’s inspire us to action and to hope.
God’s tender compassion comes to us in many ways and in many forms. May we pay attention, open our ears to hear its sweet melody, and may it help our hearts sing as we experience God’s mercy and salvation.