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January 1, 2010 (The Name of Jesus: New Year’s Day)

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Ecclesiastes 3:1–13; 2 Corintihians 5:17—6:2
This is an English translation of the sermon Pastor Fritschel delivered in German as part of “German Vespers for New Year’s Day.”

He was called son of God, savior. He established a world of peace widely acclaimed. Following his birth calculations were made so that the new year should begin from that point. News of his success was spread abroad and propagated as good news—euangelion. His name was Caesar Augustus. This inscription, dated about 9 BCE was found in the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor. The inscription also says in part “the most divine Caesar...we should consider [him] equal to the Beginning of all things...for when everything was falling into disorder...he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura.” We have no reports of accompanying music.

Against the backdrop of the Roman Empire another story is told a few decades later. Many of the same terms occur: savior, son of God, gospel, bringer of peace. But as we know, the contrast of the two tales is quite sharp. An imperial report out of Rome and a parochial account initiated in Galilee, then Bethlehem. Competing narratives. Reports of angel choirs are in the Bethlehem account.

The Galilean narrative, I claim, is upsetting, overturning, even revolutionary. It challenges many of the values and policies of the imperial court of Rome. However, it is a narrative that has been acculturated, domesticated, twisted, and manipulated in many ways, wrapped in colored paper and tinsel. It has been preserved with a Constantinian structure, European undertones, and New England overtones. It is encrusted with commercialism, nostalgic reveries, and now it is often accompanied by loneliness and depression as well as joy and elation. Perhaps I, too, twist the account with my own bias.

Yet, I believe that we are trying to find or create a comprehensive narrative. Not just any narrative, but an all-inclusive narrative able to provide meaning, purpose, and belonging in the midst of increasing diversity.

Some say that is impossible. We have a multitude of stories—but no metanarrative, no grand account like a unified field theory. Others seem to suggest “the market” as a unifying narrative—globalization; or perhaps science, or mathematics—or even that universal language, music. Even music has its multitude of expressions that often separates its audiences.

Today we have music of classic value—neither from Rome nor Bethlehem, but Leipzig—still not suited to everyone’s taste. The Bach cantata today begins with what should be a rather joyful affair. The chorus makes the announcement: Unto the world this morn, our little Jesus child was born, Christians rejoice the news to hear, which brings to all a glad new year. Yet, the music seems to me politely muted, subdued, stately, orderly but neither revolutionary nor upsetting. Perhaps the music introduces its own narrative. If we pay attention to the bass aria following the opening chorus, we hear about the narrative of sin. O Menschen die ihr täglich sündigt (O humanity, which commits sins every day). In that aria we are told that even if we are sinners, we are the joy of the angels, because God is reconciled with us.

Perhaps that is our universal tale, our unifying account. Brokenness. Estrangement. The abuse of relatedness. While this mortal tale of wrongdoing may be universal—including our own personal variations—it may not express the account we long for that provides healing. The 18th century Leipzig cantata moves on, as we would expect, to provide its own version of reconciliation.

Each of us has a narrative, a personal account, a family story, a community tale, a national myth, a cosmic overview. Our stories are tales within tales, within dramas, within sagas, within epics, songs within cantatas. And still we are looking for an all-inclusive cantata.

Impossible? Perhaps—even for the universal language of music. For not every musical form, not every expression, not every style is everyone’s taste.

Yet listen—

Music reaches the inner life, the emotional intelligence, the feelings of beings—of all creatures. Everything, everything I believe, has an inner life, a subjective quality, a capacity for empathy. Every being, great and small, pulsates with an inner life that can resonate with surrounding sounds. One’s inner life may resonate with the blues of Joe Williams, the ballads of June Christy, the country westerns of Garth Brooks, the arias of Frederica von Stade, or any other musical style. No single expression has exclusive rights to evoke our feelings.

Furthermore, “it is possible that the entire universe has an inner life,” says Jay McDaniel. “This would mean that the unity of the universe has feelings of its own, not unlike the way in which we ourselves are experiential unifications of all events.” This spirit of unification we might call God.

We might imagine a 21st century cantata in which all the myriad feelings of the universe are received into God’s experience. At least this is how many of us think. God is seen not only as the one who calls us forward, who challenges us with ideal aims of love and justice, but as the Deep Listener who listens everywhere at once.

“What does this Deep Listening hear?...What God hears most deeply is the feelings of other living beings,.and moment by moment, these feelings are woven into a whole that is God’s own life. If there is truth in this image, then the very act of listening to music can be one way of understanding what God is like. It is not so much the lyrics that will tell us about God, but rather the sounds, the harmonies, melodies, beats, and soulfulness. These sounds may tell us more about God than many a written word.”

Listening deeply to today’s music may evoke many feelings within you and your neighbor. It will likely not capture the full range of feelings, but enough so that we may recognize an empathy and compassion upon which we may act. The music may remind us of a kind of universal narrative grounded in worldly, bodily, cosmic feelings.

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