There’s A New Song In The Air

Southwest Booster - - OPINION - 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 well­known 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 Christ- mas ... 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 & 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.

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