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Sunday, December 8, 2013

O Great Mystery: Annual Holiday Choir Service

Presented by PBUUC Choir with David Chapman, Music Director and Pianist, Rev. Diane Teichert and Jonathan Mawdsley, Worship Associate

O Great Mystery

A homily preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert for the Annual Holiday Choir Service

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

December 8, 2013


The composer, Morten Lauridsen, of this gorgeous choral work (“O Magnum Mysterium”) said of it, "I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound." How well it does.


Did your mind and heart soar together for those minutes that the choir sang? I felt my soul somehow opened, deepened, raised up, and then quieted in a deep feeling of peace and gratitude. How could one piece of music both open and close, deepen and raise up, and in only some five or six minutes?  How mysterious, and awesome, is the musical Spirit of Life.


Choir, what was it like for you to sing such a piece?


O magnum mysterium… o great mystery. The song text for Christmas from the Christian tradition suggests it to be a great mystery that the new-born King came to life amongst the lowly animals and shepherds.


We may not think of Jesus as King. We may understand from the Biblical story that his parents were poor and lowly themselves, forced to travel for miles on donkey and foot to register with the government, for the privilege of paying taxes. And so we may see no mystery, only class distinctions, in the fact that they were taken in for the night to share the straw bedding of the inn-family’s livestock….


But the sense of mystery that this text inspires in composers can inspire us, too – one in which we can dwell whenever we open ourselves to it or are surprised into noticing it.


Friday night, leaving here after our festive Holiday Party, the rain had stopped, and I noticed tiny round raindrops glistening, sparkling, clinging to the slender branches of a tree near the deck. The mysterious laws of physics that made it possible are awesome, and it inspired a moment of awe that connects me to the greatest mysteries of all.


As awesome as sparkling, serene raindrops clinging to slender twigs are the lower sparkling, chaotic branches of our Christmas tree! As one of the parents quipped, “Look what happens when toddlers get to decorate the Christmas tree!”


How great is the congregation blessed by these little ones, and how blessed they are to be welcomed as such active participants!


I loved helping them decorate the tree. One of my many favorite moments was handing to one of our four year olds an ornament saved from last year on which she had colored and seeing her exclaim with pleasure as she recognized her name on it and ran off to hang it again. I was reminded of our 2009 Holiday Party when I had the profound pleasure to hold her for a long while in my arms, a three-month-old Queen.


The birth of the baby Jesus in a lowly stable, typical of his people, time and place; the birth of any of our children at local hospitals, typical of our people, time and place; the birth of Nelson Mandela in a simple Transkei village, typical of his people, time and place … Every birth is a miracle of life, and each life is a mystery unfolding, of the interaction of genes, early environment, social opportunity or the lack thereof, convictions, and serendipity or, if you will, grace.


Like many of you, I imagine, in the past few days I’ve found myself moved to tears by the death of Nelson Mandela. I have been listening to and watching interviews with and about Mandela the last few nights, and reading many tributes.  


I have long followed and been inspired by the South African freedom struggle. On the day that the African National Congress was legalized, I clipped the newspaper article announcing it, showing the joy on the faces of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a fellow activist. They knew the release of their beloved leader in exile was to happen soon.


As our Worship Associate this morning, Jonathan Mawdsley, suggested in his Chalice Reflection, there are mysteries to contemplate as we honor the life of Nelson Mandela.


In one interview, Rick Stengle – the white American reporter who helped Mandela write Long Walk to Freedom - was asked, “Did the man make the times or did the times make the man?” and replied, “For Mandela, it was both.” 


I don’t suppose that anyone, no matter how well they knew Nelson Mandela, can say why the mystery of his life unfolded the way it did. No one can say for sure what it was about his genes, his origins in a tribal leadership family, the decision of his mother to send him to a Methodist school, his particular experiences of apartheid at the particular time of his coming of age, the influence of mentors, his early adult decisions and so on that led him to overcome his fears, be pragmatic yet steadfast of purpose, an organizer as well as a leader, humble but aware of his own importance enough to make it work toward his goal of a universally democratic, free South Africa. How did he come by his courage, wisdom, strength and grace?


But that is the mystery of his life unfolding. How do we come by courage, wisdom, strength and grace? 


We pause in gratitude for the life of Nelson Mandela. We pray for the courage, wisdom and grace to live the lives that justice and compassion in our times require. We kneel in reverence before the great mysteries of life. We stand in praise of the great mysteries of life.


Instead of singing the song listed in your Order of Service, we will sing, N’kosi Sikelel’i Afrika. Written in 1897, it became widely known, was adopted by the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organizations as a national hymn. In spite of being banned by the South African Government, it was sung at meetings, rallies, funerals and other public gatherings. After the release and election of Nelson Mandela it became one of the two official national anthems of South Africa.


I invite you to find in your gray hymnal #171 and rise in body or in spirit to sing in solidarity with the people of South Africa, and all those around the world, who mourn and rejoice the life of their great leader today. David will play it through once and we will sing it in English.

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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church • 3215 Powder Mill Road • Adelphi, Maryland 20783-1097
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