Five years ago, April 2013, the revival of the play The Trip to Bountiful opened on Broadway. It follows an older woman, Mrs. Carrie Watts, who live with her son and daughter-in-law, but dreams of once more getting back to the town “Bountiful” where she was raised on a family farm.
After the curtain rose on the second act of the 2013 production, something happened that the New York Times described as a strange phenomenon. Cicely Tyson, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Watts, sat on a bus station bench in a small Texas town, reflecting on her life with passersby as she’s en route to Bountiful. At one point, overcome with emotion, she began to sing the old hymn Blessed Assurance.
And this is when you could sense a palpable stirring among patrons in the audience. It was almost like church in the Stephen Sondheim Theater. By the time Ms. Tyson jumped to her feet, spread her arms and picked up the volume, the members of the audience would start singing along. On some nights it was a muted accompaniment – a murmur or hum. At other performances, and especially at Sunday matinees, it was a full-voice chorus that rocked the theater:
This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long,
This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long.
The Times writer described this as highly unusual. But to many in the audience, and to many of us, it’s not unusual at all. One theatregoer said, “Nobody had to put the words out there in front of anybody… We just knew that song.” Or in the words of another, “Of course I joined in. It was completely natural.”
Dr. Don Saliers is a church musician, preacher and professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Maybe most importantly to some of us, he is also the father of Emily Saliers, who is one half of the world famous acoustic duo, the Indigo Girls. Given these credentials, he knows a lot about the power of song.
He is the author chapter on song and singing in the book Practicing our Faith, and he observes this about song: “Music is something the human body remembers… a kind of natural language of praise.”
“Nobody had to put the words out there… we just knew it.”
“Of course I joined, it’s completely natural.”
Something in us insists on song. Something born at times when there is no other means of expression. Even those of us who feel, or have been told we can’t sing or we’re unmusical, might hum or whistle when left to ourselves, or even break into full voice when in the safety of our car or the privacy of the shower, displaying what Saliers calls “a secret solidarity with music.” (1)
Church Musician and professor Paul Westermeyer has written that “Joy inevitably breaks into song,” but he reminds that sorrow does, too. The physical equipment we use to laugh, as well as the physical equipment we use to cry, is also the physical equipment we use to sing. So it’s but a small step from laughter or tears to song. (2)
Music holds the ability to reflect life – the heights, the depths, the minor keys, the occasional resolutions, and the complexity through it all. It can transcend boundaries and bring us together in full-throated harmony that would otherwise, anywhere else, seem unusual or phenomenal. For whether we always think the same things, or even believe the same things, we can sing the same song. Because it’s not simply something we do with our minds in an intellectual assent to the lyrics and the theme, but even more with our hearts, our depths, our souls, our bodies.
It’s not surprising, then, that singing is such a vital Christian practice and that praise and music are so closely connected.
Saint Augustine observed long ago that whoever sings, “prays twice,” not only in word but in music. From its origins, the Christian community knew this. Paul’s letters are marked by hymns, and doxologies, and references to song. The Christian Church was born out of the songs of ancient Israel. The gospels tell us of Mary singing out in praise, Zechariah singing blessing, angels singing out near Bethlehem in songs of glory, and Simeon departing with a song of peace and assurance.
This continued in the early centuries of the Church. Augustine, writing in the fourth century, said this: “Apart from these moments when the scriptures are being read or a sermon is preached… when the bishop is praying aloud or the deacon is speaking with intention, is there any time when the faithful assembled are not singing?”
They are singing in our passage today. Mark tells us in v. 8 and following, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”
“Hosanna” they sang, which we might translate today as “Praising my savior, all the day long.”
Scholars’ best guess is that “Hosanna” is a contraction of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah, meaning to save and naw, meaning to beseech. Literally the word means, “save us.” They tossed branches from the nearby trees to the ground, and they sang out, “Hosanna.” They looked upon this one they believed to be the Messiah and they cried out to him, “Save us. Save us now.” They sing out loudly of this Savior, who has come to them in the light of day, with the fullness of promise.
But as we discover in this passage, and in the days ahead, he’s a particular kind of savior.
The drama and spectacle of this day starts long before when Jesus decides to leave the relative safety and sleepiness of Galilee, with its small villages and rural way of life, to head south to the urban center of Jerusalem to observe Passover. Devout people from all over were making the pilgrimage with him and around him. And it all made the Romans nervous, you understand. They knew that this festival celebrated liberation. They heard songs about messiahs freeing people from subjugation and leaders freeing people from slavery. In anticipation, they increased the number of troops in the city. And just to add some heft, the Roman governor himself, Pontius Pilate, moved from his headquarters in Caesarea to Jerusalem.
Citing this entry of Pilate, the biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book on the last week of Jesus’ life, imagine that there were not one, but two parades that day.
Jesus came from Bethany into Jerusalem from the east, while from the west, the Roman governor Pilate entered with all the pomp of state power. Two parades.
One with a conquering warhorse, and one with a borrowed donkey from the outskirts of Bethany.
One was a show of military might, power and glory, while one proclaimed another way.
One celebrated Empire, and one pointed beyond itself to what its leader had called “the kingdom of God.”
The crowds in our passage join in the parade of the Messiah and the song of “Hosanna.” It was the moment they, and all the generations before them, had been waiting for, since Zechariah’s ancient song: “Look, your king is coming to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”
So their song intensified and the voices rose, and they probably imagined it would sweep him up and carry him to the public square or the temple gates to rally the people. But instead, the way Mark tells it, he “entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
He came to the city, had a look, and left. And you can imagine the crowd. So exuberant and swept up moments before. How their voices must have dropped. How the music must have changed.
What do we do when the music changes? When the volume drops or the accompaniment fades, or we find ourselves without a choir or crowd? What do we do when our expectations of what salvation will mean, or what faith can be, or what a savior will do turn out so different than we had hoped? What do we do when the power and volume is replaced by humility and vulnerability?
Well, so often we stop singing. And it happens so often throughout this Holy Week.
William Stringfellow was a distinguished lawyer who became a noted theologian. He was sometimes hard on the church, and he was particularly feisty about Palm Sunday. He used to say that Christians go to church on Palm Sunday because they love a parade and they love a song.
He’s articulating the concern that, basically, Palm Sunday is too sentimental, and maybe even too uncompromisingly joyful. Some theologians and church leaders have even asked if we should alter Palm Sunday and replace it or augment it with a Passion Sunday, where the entire narrative of Jesus’ suffering is read along with the celebration of palms. Because so often we skip from the upbeat parade songs of Palm Sunday to the hopeful resurrection brass and volume of Easter, forgetting all that happens in between. And what happens to people if their faith doesn’t also have songs of struggle and grief and hopelessness? What happens when we forget that as joy inevitably breaks into song, sorrow and hopelessness do, too, and that laughter and lament both need our voices together? What will we do when the music changes?
Because it does. We know that as much as we sing out “Save us,” Jesus sets about saving in a manner unanticipated. Instead of taking up a sword and sending the Romans fleeing from the city, he goes to supper with his friends, he steadies their hand from vengeance, he prays in the garden. Instead of freeing himself and the two crucified to his right and his left with a great display of power, he cries out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And in a matter of days, those hopeful voices of praise are hard to find, replaced by the mob violence and the shouts of crucify.
So it leads us to ask what songs we will sing. When Jesus moves to the Temple and begins turning over the tables, reorienting the systems that had held to that moment, what songs will we sing?
And later, when he gathers with his disciples and models power through service, finding your life by giving it away, kneeling and washing their feet and sharing his last wish that they love one another in the way he has loved them, what will we be singing?
When he goes from the supper to the garden, crying out in anguish and even self-doubt… and when he passed from the garden to the conflict, the guards, the trial, the mockery… and when he passes through the parade that leads to his death, the stone, the silence, what will we be singing?
Because all along the way of this week, the voices of his followers drop, as they peel off: Judas and his plans, the disciples and their sleeping, Peter and his denial and self-preservation, Thomas and his doubts about what happens next. What will we do when the song changes?
Dr. Jana Childers of San Francisco Theological Seminary tells of a time the music changed in her church, during Holy Week. It was at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, during a traditional “Seven Last Words” Good Friday service, a festival of preaching and song. In a turn in that church, the men of the congregation were providing the special music that day while the seven last words of Christ were being preached by seven women preachers. Childers looked forward to hearing her favorite baritone, Deacon Sellers, who was scheduled to sing right after her sermon.
Of course, not all soloists were of Deacon Sellers’s stature, and some that were weren’t able to get of work on a Friday, and so it was that some of the young baritones-in-training were having their first solo in the service.
Childers remembers especially one young man who seemed to be eleven or twelve years old, who trembled his way through the first few bars of the assigned song, and who was a good two blocks out from the key the organist was in. The congregation was with him, though. “All right, now,” they said, “Sing, child.”
Gradually, Childers noticed a strengthening, and then a course correction. The young voice was encouraged by the congregation’s support, but there was more. The boy’s voice was being shadowed, it seemed to her, by a steady, stealthy voice. She looked around. In the choir loft a few yards behind the soloist, sat Deacon Sellers, his face and eyes averted so as not to draw attention as he rocked to the rhythm of the song. He just happened to be there, you know, waiting his turn. She looked again, and saw that he was singing. Quietly, steadily, cautiously singing that green twelve-year old into key. Gradually, she realized that there were four or five men scattered through the large loft, also looking very casual and humble, but also singing him into the music. (3)
The songs of this week, sometimes they cause me to tremble, tremble… The reality of this week and the sounds we hear when the shouts of hosanna fade, they make it difficult to sing and find the melody. And so sometimes I need to be sung into it.
When the welcome parade of children and palms turns out to be a counter-movement to the status quo that disrupts my life, I need to be sung into that.
When the one we follow starts turning over tables rearranging our settled patterns and calling us toward something more than we have ever imagined for ourselves, I need other voices to hum along with me.
When he looks us in the eyes and calls us to “love as I have loved you”… When he leaves the garden at the hands of a dangerous state-sanctioned mob… When following puts us in a place of vulnerability outside his trial… When it moves to that final mile asking us to come close to the suffering and death… When it descends into that silence after the cross when we – such weary and heartbroken lot – are asked to believe one more time that Christ really will make it back, that life really is more than death, and that this world really is made for love and a power that seems to pass by us unseen when we’ve seen so much suffering and silence and so much hope encased behind stone…
When the music changes, you see… When its hopeless, or challenging… When the work is urgent, and the future is uncertain… When the way ahead is the path of the cross… it can be hard to sing. So I want to know that scattered about me there are some who will be humming, and there are some whose voices will be welling up from the depths of their souls. I want to look all around me, and find you there. And then, we can rightly sing together: “This is our story, and this is our song.”
So let us be found singing it all the day long, and even into this long week ahead, all the way to the cross.
- “Singing our Lives” in Practicing our Faith, ed. Dorothy Bass
- Te Deum: The Church and Music, p. 28
- “Saying Grace” on 30 Good Minutes