This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
I learned to play the piano from a seasoned church musician. When we started, I was seven years old and she could (almost) have been my grandmother. Along with selections from Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, she taught me to play hymns—Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Blessed Assurance, Amazing Grace. She taught me not only how to play the notes correctly, but more importantly, how to play so that a whole congregation could sing along.
Almost a decade later, people my parents’ age taught me the guitar. For a couple years, our intergenerational group led a contemporary Saturday night service. This ragamuffin coalition of teens, moms, and drum-playing scientists grew in me a love for the moments when instruments stopped so that the united voice of the congregation could ring out in all its imperfect, passionate glory.
I would not be the person or the worship cultivator I am today without these people. Intergenerational relationships and intergenerational worship are important. It’s vital that we participate together in moments of surprise, fear, grief, and thanksgiving in the lives of both the old and the young.
It’s so lovely, then, that the Gospel of Luke puts songs into the mouths of both a young, unwed mother-to-be (Luke 1:46-55) and an elderly priest who just discovered that he and his beyond-childbearing-aged wife are expecting.
Now, we have our stereotypes about both the old and the young. We whisper in committee meetings or shout from the pulpit that older people are stuck in their ways and their hymns, while younger people are always itching for something new and will only come if there are drums and rock music.
So, what’s at stake here is not tradition vs. innovation, but tradition vs. traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan once described tradition as “the living faith of the dead,” and traditionalism as “the dead faith of the living.” Tradition provides rootedness that enables us to flourish; traditionalism is a set of concrete shoes.
In my experience, this is simply not true. Thousands of young people trek to Taizé each year to sit in silence and sing in Latin with monastics, accompanied by a lone keyboard. Consider the young people I know who are just as “stuck in their ways” as their older compatriots — “Why are we moving the fundraiser to November? We’ve always (read, the last 4 years) done it in October!” Note how a recent renaissance in more structured worship, combined with the re-tuned hymns movement and the resurgence of psalm-singing in a variety of musical styles all indicate that “tradition” is not quite dead and that it can, with care, be married quite well to the “contemporary.” Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has remarked that it is actually those in their 40s, 50s and 60s who crave “contemporary worship,” whereas those in their twenties and thirties are indifferent to any particular musical style.1
Bottom line: people of all ages are musical omnivores who find meaning in all forms of worship structure.
So, what’s at stake here is not tradition vs. innovation, but tradition vs. traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan once described tradition as “the living faith of the dead,” and traditionalism as “the dead faith of the living.”2 Tradition provides rootedness that enables us to flourish; traditionalism is a set of concrete shoes. As L. Gregory Jones has argued, what we’re really looking for is “traditioned innovation” — authentic newness in response to our current context that is shaped by, grounded in, and reflective of our history and tradition.
As Jones notes, the New Testament models this traditioned innovation. In fact, the Canticle of Zechariah is one such poetic remix. The story of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth riffs on the story of Abram and Sarai — two couples, getting on in years, surprised by a miraculous birth.
But the connections to Israel’s tradition run deeper. Zechariah is named after a minor prophet who called people to turn from sin toward forgiveness (compare Luke 1:76-77 to Zec.1:4; 16-17). The Hebrew prophet proclaimed God’s intention to dwell with Israel (Zec. 2:10-13). Luke’s Zechariah uses a phrase that can mean “to visit his people” (“look favorably,” Luke 1:68). The word “dawn” (Luke 1:78) can also mean “branch,” echoing the promise in Zec. 3:8 of a branch for Israel,” that “removes the guilt of that land,” ushering in a time of peace (compare Zec. 6:12-15; 8:20-23 to Luke 1:78-79). The whole poem resonates with Israel’s prophetic tradition.
Yet Luke remixes that tradition. The promises of the prophets sound into the contemporary lives of Jesus and John the Baptist. Phrases are borrowed and reconfigured, yet in a way that would remind those steeped in Hebrew scripture of the prophet’s words. And why else would the poet continually point out that all of this fulfills the prophets? Ancient words become present and interpretive of this moment, today.
So the question for our communities is not how are we pitting tradition against innovation, but how might we lovingly play with our tradition in this new context? How might our songs echo ancient canticles? How might we play jazz riffs on the old standards of faith?
Song Recommendations [Playlist]:
Choosing music that resonates with scripture involves not simply matching lyric to text or theological theme to theological theme, but poetic tone to poetic tone. The main metaphor used in this passage is that of night turning into the dawn. The tone of Zechariah’s Canticle evokes a long night slowly marching toward a bright day. The dawn is just about to break. The music should move similarly. Each song chosen below does so in different ways.
The Community at Taizé, The Lord Is My Light and Salvation – This multi-part canon builds like sunlight streaming over the horizon. I often liken the experience of singing this chant to entering a cave from a cramped tunnel. Suddenly, you break out into a wide space. The more parts that are added, the deeper and wider this song becomes.
The Community at Taizé, Prepare the Way of the Lord – Another canon from Taizé, that pulls from Luke 1:76-77. This version was altered to include drums and be interwoven with prayer.
Gungor, Let There Be – One time, when using this song in worship, we gradually darkened the entire sanctuary, until it was nearly pitch black (this service was at night). Right after the words “let there be light,” we paused for extended silence, then suddenly turned on the lights, while launching into the louder part of the song, as Gungor demonstrates in this video. An atmospheric representation of the “dawn breaking upon you.”
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, arr. Gustav Holst – Talk about the living faith of the dead. Words from the 4th Century, sung by a choir, accompanied by organ. Notice how it crescendos to that wonderful breaking point, slowly, like morning rising over the hills. This can be done with a congregation and an organist who is willing to get loud. The basic text and music can be found in many hymnals. We sing this fairly regularly at Princeton Seminary around Christmas time, and each time I weep.
Marcus Hong, Canticle of Zechariah – I admit to being dissatisfied with most versions that try to tackle the whole of Zechariah’s canticle. They don’t capture how the poem is haunted by the past, or how it breaks open into grace at the end. Often, when I’m dissatisfied with my options, I write what I have in mind. Chords are provided below. This would be perfect with piano, a couple of guitars, and a cello. Feel free to use this, just credit me as the author of the text and the music.
Blessed be the God of Israel
F G A7
The one who sets us free
Who raised a mighty savior
Bb C Dm
From David’s family
God, faithful to the promise
We heard so long ago
Will rescue us from evil,
As prophets have foretold
God swore an oath to Abram
A vow that we hold dear,
That we, when freed from evil,
Could worship without fear
So you, child, are a prophet
Sent forth to clear the way
To speak of God’s salvation:
Forgiveness comes today
Our God, with deep compassion,
Sends dawn to shatter night
To show those lost in shadow
The way of peace and life
1. Robert Wuthnow. After the Baby-Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 224.
2. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.