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Make a Joyful Noise

by Audrey West

My adopted hometown in Pennsylvania calls itself the Christmas City. Beginning at Thanksgiving, enormous neon Advent candles stand at attention atop the bridges into town, counting down the Sundays before December 25. Streetlights serve as stanchions for 800 or so lighted Christmas trees, multi-colored lights on one side of town, white lights on the other.

Tourists arrive from across the country to visit historic downtown and shop at the white-tented Christ-kindelmarkt that rises up for the season like a snowy mountain peak in a nearby parking lot. A live Christ- mas pageant, complete with four horses, three camels, goats, sheep, and a donkey takes place next to the reconstructed log cabin representing the town’s first building. We may be one of the few remaining cities in the country in which a nativity scene and lighted tree share the grounds of city hall.

Then there is the music. During December audio speakers hidden in the downtown trees pipe out a continuous stream of Christmas carols, ranging from instrumentals of "Joy to the World" to Bing Crosby singing "Here Comes Santa Claus." The church at the end of the block hosts noontime organ concerts, while elementary students serenade visitors outside the public library. The music department of the local college, housed in one of the community’s oldest 18th-century stone buildings, performs Advent vespers each year, with a choral and instrumental program that runs the gamut from festive chorales to Zimbabwean folk music to the haunting strains of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." (back to top)

The power of music to shape faith

Music has been central to the city’s identity since it received its official name from Count Nicholaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a German Lutheran pastor and spiri- tual leader of the Moravian missionaries who arrived here in 1741. Gathering with the small band of settlers for its first Christmas Eve worship service, Zinzendorf led the congregation in one of his own hymns, “Jesus, Still Lead On” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 624). It is said that he was inspired by the second verse—“Not Jerusalem; lowly Bethlehem, ‘twas that gave us Christ to save us; not Jerusalem”—as he announced the new community’s name. Bethlehem.

It is no surprise that a hymn stanza played a key role in naming Bethlehem. The Moravians, who founded the city, placed a high value on music and the expression of their theology through hymns. Already by 1742, the Bethlehem Moravians possessed horns, flutes, and several stringed instruments to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalms 100:1). Before long, a trombone choir routinely sounded forth on church holy days, announced community births and deaths, and supported congregational singing.

Zinzendorf composed thousands of hymn stanzas, many of them for the traditional Moravian service of song called a Singstunde. Akin to a hymn sing, each Singstunde is developed around a particular theme that tells a story—for example, the Christmas story, or a story of discipleship—so that the word is proclaimed through music rather than a spoken sermon.

Then and now, music takes center stage in the Moravian expression of faith. Even today, when asked, “What do Moravians believe?” many will respond, “Listen to our hymns.” (back to top)

The power of music to call on God

The early Moravian settlers stood in a long tradition that associated music with a religious community’s expressions of joy and hope, sorrow and fear. As we have seen in Kay Ward’s Bible study, the Psalms represent music of the people of God, collected over centuries and functioning in a variety of ways. “Sing to the Lord a new song,” they proclaim (Psalms 98:1), and “raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp” (81:2). Even the heavens proclaim the glory of God (19:1). There are psalms to sing prayers for God’s justice (75), seek God’s protection (23), or celebrate God’s reign (99). Still others offer entreaties for healing (116) or thanksgiving for recovery from illness (103). Psalms provide music of lament (77) and songs of hope (121).

As early as the book of Genesis, music is a key element in the biblical story. One of the offspring of Cain is described as “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Genesis 4:21).

More familiar, perhaps, are the celebrations of song and dance recorded in Exodus 15. After Moses leads the Israelites out of danger from Egypt and through the Red Sea, the people sing this song:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea… Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:1, 11)

With the aid of tambourine and dance, Miriam leads the women in a similar refrain:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:21)

The same event would have caused the ancient Egyptians to grieve the loss of sons serving in Pharaoh’s army. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to imagine the intensity of the Israelites’ relief and their desire to praise God at being released from torturous years of bondage. Nor is it difficult to imagine how slaves in our own country would later appropriate the Exodus story into their own hopes and longings for freedom. The words are as ancient as the Bible, but the desires they express are as close at hand as the cotton fields.

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go. (“When Israel was in Egypt’s Land,” With One Voice 670) (back to top)

The power of music to comfort

A Moravian pastor writing in the late 1800s recounts the story of a woman who was expected to die soon. The youthful members of the trombone choir, having neglected their duty to practice, began to rehearse the music that was traditionally played at the burial service. It was summer, and the sounds of their rehearsal wafted through the open windows and over to the woman’s apartment.

Rising from her bed, she called out, “The rascals! They think that I am dying! But I will not die from being sick!” She survived her illness. The young trombonists, “having unwittingly scandalized the congregation,” were relieved of their duties shortly thereafter. [See Bethlehem Digital History Project.]

History demonstrates the power of music to soothe a troubled soul. When the biblical King Saul was an old man, he was tormented by an “evil spirit.” At the advice of his servants, Saul sent for a son of Jesse from Bethlehem who was skilled in playing the lyre. That young man was David, known to later generations as the shepherd who slew Goliath and became the great King of Israel. He was also perhaps the greatest musician of the Bible, and it is to him that many of the Psalms are attributed. The writer of 1 Samuel recounts that “Whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him” (1 Samuel 16:23).

Today research into Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias demonstrates the power of music to improve mood, trigger memories, and calm agitated patients. Even people who are not ill can testify to the power of music to keep fear at bay or to cope with a particularly stressful situation, and many a harried parent has found respite in a CD of children’s songs that captures the attention of restless young ones. I can always tell when my spouse has had a difficult day at work when he comes home, cranks up the stereo, and blasts his favorite (but jarring to my ears) Jimmy Hendrix tunes, followed by a more sedate selection of classical music.

Hospice and palliative care teams also have discovered the soothing power of music for patients at the end of life and their families. Building on this discovery, small groups of singers from dozens of Threshold Choirs across the country offer to sing at the bedsides of the sick and dying.

Every Thursday afternoon for the past two and a half years, three women from such a choir have visited my parents’ house in order to bring the gift of music to my father. Like King Saul, he is tormented by an “evil spirit,” which we know to be Lewy Body dementia. A couple of weeks after Dad was admitted into home hospice services, the women began to visit regularly, bringing with them only their voices and a rotating col- lection of gentle tunes. For a half hour or so their songs smooth the rocky path in a long journey to the end of life. Their music is peace. (Find more information about Threshold Choir.) (back to top)

The power of music to change the world

Around the globe and across millennia of human existence, music has transmitted customs and tradi- tions while also confronting them. Consider the roll of music in the recent Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, for example, or several decades ago during the Vietnam protests in the United States. Within our own homes, generations of teenagers have discovered the power of music to define their friendships, challenge the status quo, and express intense emotion.

Music has the power to change the world.

In the Gospel of Luke, a four-part musical overture announces God’s earth-shaking good news. Mary’s “Magnificat,” Zechariah’s song, the Gloria of the heavenly host, and Simeon’s hymn of praise proclaim the mighty power of God who “has brought down the powerful from their throne and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah sings, for “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:68, 79).

We join their song in worship. Advent candles anticipate the in-breaking of God’s reign: “O come, O come Emmanuel” (ELW 283). Christmas Eve candle- light accompanies our voices: “Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light” (ELW 281). Our longings find voice in the music of Epiphany: “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning, dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid” (ELW 303). Scripture and music proclaim it: Jesus is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

Every year on Christmas Eve, as it has done for about 250 years, a trombone choir announces the birth of Christ from the bell tower of the oldest Moravian church in Bethlehem, Pa. A single candle in each window of the surrounding buildings illumines the night, while a five-pointed, 81-foot-high star shines from the top of the mountain just south of town. These are among the season’s reminders that God comes to us in the child born to Mary in that first Bethlehem, half a world away and more than two millennia ago.

About three months later, as the sun breaks the horizon on Easter morning, the trombones will resound again. From the middle of a graveyard just a stone’s throw away from Central Church, they will lead the gathered community in a musical proclamation of the best news of all. “The day of resurrection, earth tell it out abroad, the passover of gladness, the passover of God. From death to life eternal, from sin’s dominion free, our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory” (ELW 361). (back to top)

Audrey West is the author of Gather’s 2012–13 Bible study, “Gathered by God.” Her husband, Frank Crouch, is a Moravian pastor. Audrey is a good friend of current Bible study author and Moravian Bishop Kay Ward.

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