There's A New Song In The Air

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By Ray Friesen

For centuries songwriters and singers have written and sung the songs that gave life to and shaped the character of the community, for they were convinced that, as Stompin’ Tom Connors sings in one of his less well-known songs: “The singer is the voice of the people/And his song is the soul of the land.”  With a fervour that knew that life, community and peoplehood depended on it, they taught the songs to the next generation. Symbols might inspire loyalty. Stories fired the imagination. But it was songs that stirred the soul and captured the spirit and defined a people.

The SS teachers in the tradition I grew up in knew about the power of song and taught us to sing. One song was: “One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside on which side are you?” And another generation of good little Mennonite boys and girls knew themselves to be specially chosen by God and many of the rest of the world in grave danger of being outside the embrace of God’s love and grace. Such is the power of song.

The same was true in public school. Every morning we would stand at attention and sing to the great country in which we lived and vowed to “stand on guard for [it].” We knew there was no better country anywhere. Even today, at the beginning of each Bronco game I feel the stirring within as I sing to “the true north strong and free.” I wonder if the Holocaust would have happened if it hadn’t been for the power of Deutschland, Deutschland Ueber Alles—“Germany, Germany above everything, above everything in the world.” Written by Joseph Haydn in the 18th century and rooted in German musical, religious, and theological superiority, it was but a short distance to biological and genetic superiority and the Holocaust. Such is the power of song.

Such was the power of song 1,300 years earlier when the Mid-Eastern air was filled with the ear-drum shattering music of patriotism, revolution, and religious superiority—drum-beats and trumpet blasts of a world-conquering Roman army, the revolutionary songs of the Zealot guerrilla fighters, and the rousing “pipe-organ music” of Jewish people who knew God cared more for them than anyone else.

With all that music to fill the hearts, move the feet, thrill the soul and capture the spirit, few heard another song that was whispered on the breeze and sung in the quiet of the night, an alternative song to songs of war, political elitism, and religious superiority. On a Bethlehem hillside, a group of shepherds sat around the fire, watching their sheep. These men were not worth the attention of the Roman generals, did not have time for Zealot revolutionaries, and were despised by the Jewish organists. It was these men who heard, above the echo of war and superiority and revolution, that other song, first faintly as if but the rustle of the wind in the grass, and then in a rising crescendo of sound, till they knew it was being sung by an angel chorus. It was a song so beautiful, so radical, so powerful, it nigh blew their circuits as it filled their ears, found room in their hearts, caught their imaginations, and convinced their minds that they were hearing a new song, surely a song from another world that had the power to reshape this world:

    Peace and goodwill to all on earth,

    Peace and goodwill to all who hear.

    Peace and goodwill, oh take up the song,

    peace and goodwill both far & near.

Here was the promise of a world they had not even been able to imagine. Here was the promise of a song more powerful than those of war and religion, patriotism and revolution, empire and judgment, elitism and guilt, more powerful and more life-giving.

Through the centuries since, that song has often been drowned out by the cannon’s roar, the trumpet’s blast, and the pipe organ’s crescendo. And still, through those same centuries, there have been those who heard the song, those whose souls were re-awakened to life by that song, those whose spirits were inspired by the possibilities, those whose feet sensed the beat and joined the dance.

In 1914 the roll of war drums, blasts of angry trumpets, boom of death-dealing cannons, and roar of newly developed tanks threatened to drown out the new song forever. And then, on Christmas Day, in a pause in the hell-bent intent to kill each other, the soldiers in the trenches in France heard the angels singing as clearly as did the shepherds so many centuries earlier. The story is told in a song sung on behalf of Francis Tolliver, a young Brit sent off to war right after school.

    I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground

    (sings Tolliver)

    When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound

    Says I, ``Now listen up, me boys!'' each soldier strained to hear

    As one young German voice sang out so clear.

    ``He's singing bloody well, you know!'' my partner says to me

    Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in [the] harmony

. . .

    As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent

    ``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'' struck up some lads from Kent

    The next they sang was ``Stille Nacht.'' ``Tis `Silent Night','' says I

    And in two tongues one song filled up that sky

More recently, in 1969, with the song of the angels echoing in his ears, John Lennon wrote Give peace a chance and a whole generation was helped to hear and then feel, imagine and believe in the song of the angels. The hope for our world did not rest with war in Vietnam, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and the development of the largest, most expensive army the world has ever known. The world’s true hope could be seen reflected in the twinkle of stars and heard in the night breeze, so beautiful it had to come from the lips of angels, a song that could grow in the imaginations of people and be realized in the new ways of the human race.

Today we hear the echo of the angels’ song in the poetry and music of people of various faith and worldview perspectives, people sometimes separated by differences that can run deep, but drawn together by a yearning and dream that runs even deeper.   

You hear echoes of the angel chorus as Western Christians sing at this time of year: “To us a child of hope is born.” You hear it in the songs of Arab Christians who join their voices in the chorus:

    On the night of Christmas ... Hatred will vanish

    On the night of Christmas ... The Earth blooms

    On the night of Christmas ... War is buried

    On the night of Christmas ... Love is born

You hear the song of the angels in the ancient song of the Jews who dream of the time when

    they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

    and their spears into pruning-hooks;

    nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

    neither shall they learn war any more.

You hear that same echo in the poetry of the Muslim poet, Mahmoud Darwish:

. . .

    As you conduct your wars – think of others.

    Don’t forget those who want peace.

. . .

    As you sleep and count the planets, think of others

    – there are people who have no place to sleep.

    As you liberate yourself with metaphors think of others

    – those who have lost their right to speak.

    And as you think of distant others

    – think of yourself and say “I wish I were a candle in the darkness.”

You hear a version of the song of the angels in the Buddhist blessing translated by Thich Nhat Hahn:

    May everyone be happy and safe,

    and may their hearts be filled with joy.

    May all living beings live in security and in peace

. . .

    May all of them dwell in perfect tranquility.

    Let no one do harm to anyone.

    Let no one put the life of anyone in danger.

    Let no one, out of anger or ill will,

    wish anyone any harm.

And of course there are those who stand in other spiritual traditions or no identifiable tradition, but dream and sing with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, “Give peace a chance.”

This Christmas I invite you to sing your version of the angels’ song:

    Peace and goodwill to all on earth,

    Peace and goodwill to all who hear.

    Peace and goodwill , oh take up the song,

    peace and goodwill both far and near.

If you believe in angels with your mind, sing this song and find yourself strategizing new ways of peace. If you believe in angels with your heart, sing this song and allow your heart to swell with love till it embraces all people in our world. If you believe in angels with your imagination, sing this song and realize that if you can imagine the angels singing the song of peace on earth, you can imagine peace itself, and who knows what will come of such imagining.  Sing, and be assured wherever the echoes of our singing are heard, peace will grow.

Amen. Salam a lay kuhm. Shalom. Give peace a chance.

Geographic location: Germany, Bethlehem, France Vietnam

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