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Godspell1As we prepare for our final midweek Advent Vespers lesson of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1 – 18), I cannot stop a memory from my youth to float through my mind.  When I was in junior high, I was in a production of Godspell with my sister’s high school friends.  Several of them had attended the same church, and they were one singer short of a full ensemble.  Thanks to my sister vouching for me, I was admitted into the production, an event that exposed me to my first ecumenical effort and created the foundation for friendships I still hold dear today.  As a result of that musical, I will never be able to think about John the Baptist without the song “Prepare Ye” ringing through my mind.

There are many who question if this passage can indeed be labeled the Song of John the Baptist.  While it may sometimes miss our notice, John is considered a prophet.  In Hebrew literature, a prophet fulfills a minimum of one of the following distinct roles; 1) to speak towards the future of what God will be doing in the world, 2) to give a message from God to the people (like an intercessory or messenger), 3) to experience a mystical act from God, like a vision 4) use mystical abilities on God’s behalf, such as healing someone.  Very often, prophets would prepare the way in battle, similar to the role of a town crier.  A refrain from their vision would be sung repeatedly in a liturgical fashion.  Frequently, these cries were repeated seven times while circling a territory and carrying a sacred object, such as the arc of the covenant.  The prophetic cry or song would become a liturgical ritual, helping to prepare for the battle ahead and serving as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the people.

Luke strongly emphasized that John the Baptist was a prophet, speaking on God’s behalf about the future of the ethical renewal in Israel and how God was bringing salvation to all peoples.[1]  John’s prophetic voice is strengthened as he echoes the imagery found by another prophet in Isaiah 40: 3 – 5.  Isaiah’s image of “the way of the Lord,” references a Babylonian liturgical rite of a festival procession of idols.[2]  Isaiah explains that one will come who will “make straight” (correct) the roadway from celebrating false idols and instead reveal God’s glory.

While we may never know for sure if this passage was indeed sung, it is not a far leap to assume that John enacted the liturgical practice of the sung town crier as he prepared the way for Christ, especially in light of the Isaiah imagery.  We explore this possibility of song as tomorrow, December 18, at 7 pm.  A reception will follow the service.

As I continue to hum “Prepare Ye,” I find myself surprised that a musical with disciples dressed as clowns holds so much liturgical history.  In Godspell, the refrain of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is repeated over and over again in town crier fashion, providing us with an avenue to imagine how John may have sung his prophetic refrain throughout the city streets.


[1] Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke – John (volume 9), a ed. (Grand Rapids: Abingdon Press, 1996), page 81

[2] J. J. M. Roberts, The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, Fully ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2006), page 961

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It is interesting that we will explore Hannah’s Song at our Advent Vespers just one day after the globalized day of prayer against hunger on December 10.  Before we reach Hannah uplifting her prayer of thanksgiving about her son, we learn in the book 1 Samuel that Hannah had been rebuked for reaching for more food at dinner one night by her husband’s second wife, Peniniah.

hannahs-prayerEven in a prosperous household, food can be used as a weapon.  It is presumed that Elkanah’s household was affluent, which was why he could accommodate having both Hannah and Peniniah as wives.  Hannah was barren where Peniniah had many children.  Peniniah scolded Hannah for reaching for more food, stating that the extra food should go to her own children.  At that table, food was used to shame Hannah for the barrenness that was beyond her control.

It was this encounter that prompted Hannah to go to the temple and plead with God for a son.  She made a bargain, vowing that if she is blessed with a child she would give him over to God to be a Nazarite.  Soon after, she gave birth to Samuel, whose name translates “name of God.”  When Samuel was about 3 years old, the family journeys to Shiloh where Hannah gives Samuel over to the priest Eli, fulfilling her promise made in the temple.  It is here in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 we encounter her prayer of thanksgiving.

It was common for prayers of thanksgiving to be sung aloud.  Add that ritual with the literary structure and strong symbolism, Hannah’s prayer often referred to as a psalm or song.  Since Hannah was heading to the temple as she proclaimed this prayer, many traditions sing this song in advance to worship as a pietistic preparation.

Hannah’s song strongly parallel’s the style and structure of Psalm 113, a song of thanksgiving that is accredited to David.  The structure and style of songs of thanksgiving are somewhat formulaic in structure – they tend to begin with an word of praise, refer back to how God has acted on behalf of the people in creation in the past, and look to the future at how God will bring glory in the future.  Such a structure was useful when used corporately in an assembly, as it leads to natural breaks for call and response between the congregation and the cantor.

This structure for songs of thanksgiving is so strong that we see it repeated in numerous psalms, including Mary the mother of Jesus’ psalm of thanksgiving at the annunciation.  The similarities between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song are so strong that some scholars believe that Mary’s song was an adaptation of the familiar song from Hannah.

We explore Hannah’s song at 7 pm on Wednesday, December 11.  Dinner will be held at 6 pm for those interested.  Join us next week as we encounter the song of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-18.

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This week begins our Advent midweek worship series, “Preparing the Way in Song.”  Each passage represented in our series highlights a different function of how songs were used to convey messages about God to the people.  Frequently these songs accompany a major shift in culture, serving as a frame for understanding where God is at work in the midst of tragedy or pointing to hope at the change God is yet to do.  These songs are liturgical narratives, often being repeated by faith communities for generations to come.

Our first week we encMiriam's Songounter two songs of praise by Moses and Miriam.  They are considered to be some of the oldest historical passages in Hebrew Scripture.  While presumed to be written down prior to the documenting of the creation stories, the use of water imagery suggests that the oral tradition of the creation stories was prevalent in the culture and influenced the mythological tone of these hymns.

Moses and Miriam’s songs serve as a liturgical ritual to reflect upon the dramatic experience of the crossing of the sea, all the while paralleling the events of the Passover.  In the history of tradition, it is likely that Miriam’s song came first when used in the liturgy, serving as an antiphon (or refrain) to reinforce the thanksgiving voiced by the people. [1]  The assembly would join Miriam’s words as an echoing refrain, breaking up the Moses’ song into sections.  We sometimes follow that structure in our own liturgy when we use a refrain in our Psalmody.  Also, Miriam is referred to as a prophet as the text introduces her song, suggesting that a “hymnic celebration by the people is a prophetic witness to God.” [2]

While researching these songs, I was surprised to learn from the Jewish side of my family that Moses and Miriam’s songs are still used as liturgical narratives in synagogues today.  It has caused me to ponder on many of the liturgical narratives that we use in Christian worship that have carried through the ages, such as singing Mary the mother of Jesus’ hymn of praise at evening vespers.

Our liturgy provides us with a frame work for encountering God in evocative ways in the midst of being in a community of believers.  We unite with our ancestors throughout the ages as we return to the liturgical narratives found in our scriptures, bringing them to life in the present with the sound of our voices.

As we eagerly await the babe in the manger, we stay united in the fulfilled promises of God throughout time through the gift of song.

Join us next week as we encounter Hannah’s Song.


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[2] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 64

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Church Girl

A few candlesnufferweeks ago my four-year-old niece was in town and was playing with my candle snuffer.  I have several large votive candles on the mantle of my fireplace, and have splattered wax more times than I would like to admit, hence the snuffer.  It very much resembles the candle extinguishers used on a church altars.  My niece was super excited to douse the candles, and kept giggling as she said, “I’m going to be a church girl! I’m going to be a church girl!”

My niece and nephew both love church, which is somewhat surprising because they are at church all the time.  Their mother is a music and youth director, their dad teaches music at a Catholic high school and I am in seminary training to become a pastor.  Between the three of us, they are in church more hours in one week then some people attend in a year.

advent-wreathWhere I would think they would be bored of church by now they love it.  They were super excited to help light the candles on the fourth Sunday of Advent.  My niece was going to start the prayer with my sister finishing i.  Before the service she practiced and practiced, her soft child voice repeatedly saying “Blessed be God, Blessed be God.”  She was ready to take being a “church girl” to a whole new level.

But when the time came to speak into the microphone from the lectern, my niece panicked.  She tucked her face into my sisters neck, shying away from the assembly.  When she came back to the pew and my sister returned to direct the musicians, my niece crawled into my lap and began to cry. “I was too scared to be a church girl.  I’m so sad I didn’t do it!”

A few days later on Christmas morning, I stood upon the altar and sang the liturgy for the first time outside of worship class.  Like my niece, I was terrified.  It is hard to stand before a community of people and share your faith in a new way.  It can be intimidating to want to do it right, to make sure you don’t make a mistake, to try to remember the right words at the right time.

When we sat down at the dinner table that afternoon and my sister asked for me to lead grace, my niece said, “Can I pray?”  With her strong, brave voice, she started us off, “God is great, God is good…”  Throughout the meal she kept turning to her two-year old brother, the two of them saying to one another, “God is great.  God is good.”  “God is great. God is good.”

I don’t think my niece will ever know that she was more of a “church girl” at that dinner table then she ever would have been by speaking into a microphone in worship.  It is one thing to say words of faith at the right time in the right place, at the perfectly orchestrated section of a worship service.  It is something else to take the reigns and lead others in an intimate way, being so over joyed with the day that you cannot stop yourself from saying “God is great.  God is good.”

My little church girl knows what matters and the reason for the season, and is a teacher to me in more ways then she will ever know.

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