Friday, December 24, 2010

Songs for All Seasons

It feels like everything is out of sync when we’re hearing Christmas carols in the mall starting on Halloween. I know it’s a commercial ploy to create a generous mood in shoppers, and is exploiting the faith. So I’m much happier when the Season of Christmas begins and the carols and songs sound out when they’re timely.

On the other hand, there are three songs that we usually identify with the Season of Christmas that are versatile enough to be sung at any time. You’ll find them in Luke’s Gospel: canticles by Mary (Magnificat), Zechariah (Benedictus) and Simeon (Nunc Dimittis). Although all three songs are featured in the story of the birth of Jesus, their usefulness in liturgy is not limited to the Christmas or Advent Seasons.

The Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer places these three biblical songs in premier position every day: Mary’s Song in Evening Prayer; Zechariah’s Song in Morning Prayer; and Simeon’s Song in Prayer at the Close of Day (Night Prayer).

In other words, they’re appropriate year round, any season, any day. The expectation is, for Daily Prayer, that they’ll be used frequently.

It’s too easy to write the three canticles off as belonging to Christmas, and shelve them for the rest of the church year. When they become part of the daily discipline of prayer, however, their realism and relevance become clear.

Mary’s Song, in the Book of Common Worship-Daily Prayer, has been treated with some liturgical license. Rather than speaking about God in the third person, as she does in the biblical text, the prayer book version has her speaking to God in the second person. It is much more intimate. The song becomes a prayer. In the context of worship, daily or Sunday, Mary’s Song becomes our prayer.

What a flaming radical Mary is. She signs on with God, no hesitation. Not much more than a child herself, she agrees to be God-bearer, to bring Christ into the world. And she is fully aware that what God does through her will turn the world upside down—God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.

Mary’s Song, then, is the prayer of the church. We, too, are God-bearers, called to bring Christ into our world. We, too, are God’s agents in setting things right side up once again.

Zachariah’s Song appears in Morning Prayer. For the most part, it too is a prayer we can pray. Except for one brief section wherein Zachariah speaks to his Son, John, who is destined to serve God. John will grow up to be the “advance man” for Jesus—he will “go before the Lord to prepare the way.”

Zachariah’s Song then is our prayer and our marching orders as we launch our lives each day. We are to prepare the way of the Lord, “to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.”

Simeon’s Song comes with our prayers at night. It’s the prayer of an old man who at last knows God’s promise of salvation is kept—now he can rest in peace.

“Rest in peace” sounds funereal. And it is. Prayer at the Close of Day is a rehearsal for Prayer at the Close of Life. Some of the texts and other prayers of the service are familiar ones that we have used and heard in funerals.

This is not unusual for end of day prayers. Children over generations have gone to bed at night saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”, which also links the end of day with the end of life.

There is another ancient version of that thought used as a refrain to Simeon’s Song, worth memorizing—also a good prayer for all occasions:
Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping;
that awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep rest in his peace.

You can really sing Mary’s, Zachariah’s and Simeon’s songs. Musical versions are readily available in the Presbyterian Hymnal (601-605).

Have you used any of these canticles at times other than Advent or Christmas? Do you follow Daily Prayer in your church? For yourself?

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