In every church I’ve served, the big Christmas music program has happened on the third Sunday of Advent–Joy Sunday. The scheduling has been more logistical than liturgical. The third Sunday in Advent gives you the maximum number of rehearsals before everybody leaves town for the holidays.
But it makes sense, doesn’t it? What better way to express our joy than through music? Singing, music…takes us out of ourselves to a happier place, a deeper place, a place where we feel more whole. And when we sing with other people? Few things help us feel more connected with others than singing with them.
The country of Estonia lies between Siberia and the Baltic Sea. Because of its prime location, the small country has a long history of being occupied by other countries. After decades of brutal occupation by the Soviets, Estonia declared independence in 1988.
During decades of occupation, the Estonians had one source of resistance that empowered them more than any other—communal song. As a contemporary Estonian says, “We have no more weapons than singing. Being together, singing together–this was our power.”
Since 1869, every 5 years, on the outskirts of Tallinn, tens of thousands of people gather for a singing festival. A choir of 20,000 people sings songs of Estonia–in four part harmony, led by one conductor. Somehow, that choir of 20,000 stays together. And the sound? It’s difficult to describe how beautiful it is.
The singing festivals continued during the Soviet occupation, but instead of Estonian music, the choirs were forced to sing songs of Soviet propaganda. In Russian.
At the 1947 festival, one song got past the Soviet censors. “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love,” a song composed by Gustav Ernesaks based on a century-old poem by Lydia Koidula. After two days of singing Russian propaganda, tens of thousands of Estonians sang of their love for their country in their native language. In that moment, “Land of My Fathers” became the unofficial national anthem for the country.
In 1969–the 100th anniversary of the Singing Festival–the people gathered again to sing. At the end of the festival of solely Russian propaganda songs, the choirs refused to leave the stage. As one, the people shouted out, “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love!” At last, the people began singing. The officials told the brass bands to drown out the singing, but it didn’t work. The people continued singing–without a conductor. Of the experience, one person observed, “20,000 people start to sing, even without a conductor, you cannot shut them up. It’s impossible.” The Soviets were forced to let the composer take the stage and conduct the song.
Of her country’s passion for singing, one woman says: “This singing tradition goes from heart to heart, from family to family, from mother to daughter. You can’t describe it. They want to sing…and they sing. And we are very happy for it.”
For Estonians, song has been their power. And throughout their history, the joy singing has brought them has been their resistance.
Has today’s music brought you joy? Have singing and ringing and listening stirred something deep within you? Has it empowered you?
Are there things in this world that are calling us to resist? How might we resist with joy? How might we resist with song?
I leave you with this important reminder of the power of song from Nadia Bolz-Weber:
“Singing in the midst of evil is what it means to be disciples. Like Mary Magdalene, the reason we stand and weep and listen for Jesus is because we, like Mary, are bearers of resurrection, we are made new. On the third day, Jesus rose again, and we do not need to be afraid. To sing to God amidst sorrow is to defiantly proclaim…that death is not the final word. To defiantly say, once again, that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it. And so, evil be damned, because even as we go to the grave, we still make our song alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.”
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018