The Fourth Sunday of Advent: David and Mary and The Power of Prayerful Song

In today’s readings, we hear the stories of two central prophetic witnesses: King David and Mary of Nazareth. Their stories are intimately connected in the Christian narrative and today’s readings give us much to ponder theologically. This year, however, the Responsorial Psalm is what caught my attention. It acts as the connective tissue between the narratives of David and Mary. It is easy to imagine both David and Mary singing “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord” because both knew the creative power of praying through song. Tradition holds that David wrote and/or commissioned most of the psalms. Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat, continues to be one of the central prayers in the Christian tradition. Prayerful song is at the center of their relationships with God.

The power of prayerful song has been on my mind the past few weeks. Charged with the rather strange task of reflecting on what is both the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the night before Christmas, I have found myself humming and singing and meditating on John Rutter’s arrangement of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” I learned this delightful Christmas choral piece when I sang in an all girls’ choir in Portland, Oregon through middle school and high school. “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” was one of my favorite pieces we sang. And the lyrics seem particularly appropriate on this last day of Advent.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day!

I would my true love did so chance,

To see the legend of my play,

To call my true love to my dance!

 

Sing o, my love! O, my love! My love! My love!

This have I done for my true love.

We did not discuss the theological meaning behind the text in choir rehearsal. We focused on the music, on the style, the phrasing, and the diction. I can still hear Roberta Jackson, our choir director, instruct us on phrasing and diction. “Dahncing, ladies, not Daancing.” “Keep it bright!” Can you give me more “t” on tomorrow? But remember, go straight to the vowel.” “Don’t breathe between chance and to. Sing it as one phrase. Carry the breath over.” “Ok, ladies. Let’s try it again.”(1) And so I came to know the song in my body before I understood its theological meaning. Yet as we rehearsed and performed it time and time again, my intellect started to catch up. Oh! I get it! Christ is singing the song. Christ is calling his true love to dance. The song simply stated that God so loved us, longed so much to dance with us, to be with us, that God became human. Christ calls his true love to dance. Who is the true love? Is it the church? All human beings? All of creation? Could I also be the true love? Could God want to dance with me? These thoughts and questions would well up within me as we sang the hymn. It is true: singing is praying twice.

Songs have a way of settling into our bones and breath and heart when we sing them over and over. They shape how we think, how we feel, and how we imagine the world, ourselves, and God. I learned more about prayer by singing in that “secular” choir than I learned from Religious Education at my parish. Singing year after year with so many different young women and singing together so many different musical styles and genres, languages and texts taught me how to imagine together the both/ands: despair and hope, sorrow and joy, the secular and the sacred, the human and divine.

I remember that we usually sang “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” as the opening song for our holiday concert and we always ended the concert with a moving and grandiose version of “O Holy Night.” The differences between these two pieces is striking. One says: Dance! The other: Fall on your knees! One calls us to think of the light of day. The other, the holy darkness. Yet, it did not seem strange that one concert could hold both the imagery of both the joyful “Tomorrow Shall be My Dancing Day” and the glorious “O Holy Night.” In fact, it made perfect sense. And somewhere along the way, both formed my understanding of Jesus, the Christian life, the incarnation, and salvation.

For all their differences, David and Mary shared an ability to live in ambiguity and a willingness to participate in God’s unfolding promises. They did not cling to certainty. Rather, they said yes to the radical unknown, faithful that God would provide the way. Perhaps it was their God-given affinity for song, for improvisation, for composing prayer in both lyric and melody that gave them the capacity to say yes to the unknown, to live into the paradoxes and strangeness of God’s ways. Forever they did sing the goodness of the Lord.

We live in uncertain times. Our fears for the future are not unfounded, but they cannot have the final word. I find that singing helps face and quell the fear. So on what is both the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve, let’s pray for the courage to join David and Mary and sing through the fear, the tensions, the paradoxes, the ambiguities of Christian life as we wait in joyful hope for tomorrow, our dancing day.

 

 

(1) I could not find a video of the Portland Symphonic GirlChoir singing this song. The video provided features various children’s choirs, including the PSG. There are other beautiful renditions of the piece available on YouTube, many of higher quality. But this one captures the way I remember it, sung by many, many children with bright, hopeful voices and faces.

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