Singing Our Way to a New Reality

Presentation of the Lord
February 2

Malachi 3:1-4

Psalm 24

Luke 2:22-40

fireworksThis weekend is a very auspicious one.  In the East, millions of people are celebrating the Chinese New Year (the Year of the Horse).  Jewish households are celebrating the New Moon of the month of Adar, which is a joyful month where the holiday of Purim celebrates the victory of Queen Esther over the evil genocidal plot of the Persian Lord Haman.  The American folk-tradition of Groundhog Day looks forward to the arrival of spring; and the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation at the Temple.

The Gospel passage in Luke that depicts Christ’s presentation at the Temple is full of surprise and joy.  The story begins as Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, take the infant Jesus to the Temple for the ritual “purchasing back” of the first-born son with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24), which were the sacrifices designated for the poor.  As they are presenting Jesus to the Temple priests, an older man named Simeon approaches them, for whom “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (vv.26).  Simeon takes the infant in his hands and, overcome with joy, begins to sing:

"The Presentation at the Temple," Andrea Mantegna, 1453

“The Presentation at the Temple,” Andrea Mantegna, 1453

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (vv.29-32).

This song, called in Latin the “Nunc Dimittis” or the “Canticle of Simeon”, is so stirring that it is traditionally used as the Gospel Canticle to announce the Gospel reading for the Night Prayer (or Compline) service.  In this story, Simeon was not just breaking out in song – he was singing a new social reality into being.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. singing "We Shall Overcome"

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. singing “We Shall Overcome”

Songs are often used in times of gathering and times of crisis to move people forward into a new and better reality.  There are few people who knew this power of song better than musician Pete Seeger, who passed away this Monday, January 27, at the age of 94.  Known as a folk musician, organizer, and passionate pursuer of justice locally and nationally, Pete Seeger was a major influence on musicians, organizers, politicians and young people for an entire generation.

One of his best-known songs, “We Shall Overcome” (adapted from an African-American folk tune), became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement in 1960, when activist Guy Carawan introduced it to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Kim Ruehl.  “‘We Shall Overcome’: History of an American Folksong”)  Protesters would face fire hoses, attack dogs and billy clubs singing the song, arms resolutely linked together:

We shall overcome, We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday

Another one of Seeger’s songs was “If I Had a Hammer” (click on the link to see Peter Seeger performing the song all the way back in 1956.):

pete-seegerIf I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.  I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land.
I’d hammer out “Danger!”  I’d hammer out “Warning!” 
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

In a 2007 interview, Seeger indicated that the need for songs to stir people into action is just as pressing today as it was during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War era:

pete-seeger2“We are in a crisis time. I don’t give us a chance of—well, you never can tell. There might be a little tribe somewhere in the world on some isolated island, but I see human beings wiping each other off the face of the earth. We’ve invented such weapons—not just nuclear weapons but chemical weapons and all sorts of things.
“I’ve been saying for years, it may be that climate change is a wake-up call for the whole human race. It’s going to be a multi-trillion dollar disaster for the rich countries, and a human disaster for the poor countries. Where’s Bangladesh going to put 45 million people? And Calcutta, and other cities? It’s going to be a disaster like nobody’s ever seen … “(“Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing?”  Christian Science Monitor, 1/31/2014)
Seeger Springsteen

Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at the Obama inauguration

However, Pete Seeger was still optimistic about change: “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”  Even though he was convicted of contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955 and blacklisted by entertainment promoters into the late 1960s, Seeger kept singing at local events and college campuses, keeping his optimistic stories alive in song.  Many decades later, Seeger would share the stage with the nation’s first African American President, singing “This Land is Your Land” at the Obama inauguration with Bruce Springsteen.

On change, Pete Seeger saw things happening in little ways over long periods of time:

If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things. The powers-that-be can break up any big thing they want. They can corrupt it or co-opt it from the inside, or they can attack it from the outside. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? They break up two of them, and three more like them spring up!  (Ibid.)

Today, let us celebrate by singing with Simeon and Pete Seeger.  Sing any song you know by heart out loud, preferably with a friend, and watch the world change a little at a time.

3 thoughts on “Singing Our Way to a New Reality

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