I'm on the road this morning. So I called my husband and asked him to open the fifth window on the Advent calendar. "What it is?" I asked. "Singing," he replied. "Not angels. No heavenly choir. People. People singing."
I like to sing, and fellow parishioners constantly try to recruit me for the choir. But many people do not like to sing-afraid, I suspect, of not being able to carry a tune and embarrassing themselves in front of others. My mother lived in mortal fear of singing, even in church where the organ or other church members might drown her out. "I can't sing," she'd say. "I sound awful."
For the record, she was right. Oddly enough, however, my favorite memory of my mother is the pair of us singing together. When I was a little girl, she took me-her eldest-to the sanctuary on Sunday morning while my younger siblings were dispatched to the church school. Mom and I sat in the balcony together, gazing down on the congregation through the prism of stained-glass sunlight.
When the music started, she pulled a worn Methodist hymnal from the rack opening the book to the announced page. She held it low that I might see, and I moved close to her to share the book. As the song began, she pointed to the notes and words that I might follow. She may have felt inhibited by her lack of musical skill (perhaps that is why we sat in the balcony!), but she still taught me the lyrics of faith. And, despite it all, every Christmas Eve, she'd cry at the annual singing of "Silent Night." Thus, I learned the hymns of the Christian tradition and the music of my Methodist ancestors-all before I was old enough to read a novel or understand theology.
Recent studies of people suffering memory loss showed that even if they have forgotten everything else, many still remembered hymns. When researchers played "Amazing Grace" to elderly patients, their mental faculties increased and they could often sing along. For those raised in church, the songs they learned as children were among the very last memories they carried to their death. Music shaped the journey of their lives.
In the early fifth century, St. Augustine said that singing and love were intimately connected. When we sing, our words of praise actually transform into love; song opens our souls to their deepest affections. In the Methodist church balcony, I experienced love-the love of God, my mother, and my faith inheritance-in ways that transcended words, in ways that could only be communicated in music. And in nursing homes, the elderly may no longer remember names, but they appear to remember love. Indeed, as a theologian friend of mine says, "We sing our lives." If St. Augustine was right, we also sing our loves.
And love, just as the apostle Paul once said, remains until the end.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).