Exactly fifty years ago in 1966, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released their third studio album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. The record was a hit and consists of an eclectic playlist that includes the wistful “Homeward Bound,” the conflicted “Dangling Conversation,” and the light-hearted “Feelin’ Groovy.” The final track on the album surprised many first-time listeners, because it differs from all the others in both substance and style. It begins as a traditional Christmas carol:
Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child; holy infant so tender and mild…
As soon as it begins, however, the carol is interrupted by background static overlaid on the track, almost as if a second radio station is interfering with the song. As the song goes on, the background voice becomes louder and more distinct. It says something about President Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights bill. Slowly the listener realizes that the voice is a newscaster, and next he says, clearly, “In Los Angeles today, comedian Lenny Bruce died of what was believed to be a narcotics overdose. Bruce was forty-two years old.”
At that point, as if in rebellion against the bad news, the duet’s voices crescendo:
Sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.
But the newscaster drones on, ever louder, “Dr. Martin Luther King says he does not intend to cancel plans for an open housing march Sunday into the Chicago suburb of Cicero…The police in Cicero said they would ask that the National Guard be called out if it is held…In Chicago, Richard Speck, accused murderer of nine student nurses, was brought before a grand jury today for indictment. The nurses were found stabbed and strangled in their Chicago apartment.”
And so it goes. The news gets worse, if you can believe it. The newscaster reports stories about Vietnam and anti-war protests. He mentions the conspiratorial theories of Congress’ Un-American Activities Committee. The tumult of the news attempts to take center stage, but all the while Simon and Garfunkel will not allow the light in their harmony to be snuffed. They claim the soundwaves:
Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin, mother and child; holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.
The newscaster ends by saying, “That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news. Goodnight,” as Simon and Garfunkel’s last refrain echoes in the air.
The final track on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, titled “7 O’Clock News” is masterful. It expertly captures the tension of Advent, which existed fifty years ago in 1966, existed two thousand years ago in Palestine, and still exists today. We read today the precious story that the Holy Spirit of God conceives with Mary, and an angel of the Lord announces to Joseph that this child will be Emmanuel, God-with-us. With the angel’s annunciation comes the nascent hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled. We wait all year for this reading. We wait all year to kneel and sing Silent Night, which we will do on Saturday next, to rest in the warm and hopeful glow of the Christ Child’s birth.
But we also live in the world. And our newscasters, this very week, seek to drown out the blessed melody with reports of ongoing violence in Syria, as well as dozens of Coptic Christians—the world’s oldest enduring Christian sect—being blown up along with their ancient cathedral by terrorists in Egypt. The newscasters tell us of Russians hacking our political system. They report on the ominous rise of old prejudices and racially motivated hate groups that we had hoped were long gone. And increasingly, they reveal that some of our news isn’t even news, but rather consists of stories fabricated whole cloth to discredit and sow fear and manipulate people.
Yes, we live in a fearful and uncertain world and a fearful and uncertain time. The question for us—the pivotal Advent question—is which do we believe has the final say: The Nativity or the newscast? Which do we believe prevails in the end?
The angel’s first words to Joseph are “Do not be afraid.” The angel says the same to Mary in Luke’s version of the story.[i] It is also the repeated refrain of Jesus to the disciples throughout the Gospels whenever the world seems about to overwhelm them.[ii] Do not be afraid.
But Jesus and the angel don’t offer this encouragement to pretend that everything in these days will work out o.k. They do not mean that every cancer will be healed, every job preserved, that every politician will earn our trust, every social fracture will mend, or all religious violence will end. Mary’s heart, after all, was broken along with Jesus’ body on the cross. The angel’s promise at the annunciation did not prevent her real and deep pain at the crucifixion.
Our encouragement not to fear is, rather, the promise that since that first Advent, since the Incarnation of God on Christmas, we do not walk through this world alone. Our courage comes not from the illusion of well-being provided by rose colored glasses, but from the sure knowledge that even if we walk through fire in this world, God is with us. Emmanuel. No matter the 7 o’clock newscast, no matter the static it overlays on our days, no matter how loud its bad news, the sacred melody always also plays. It will not be drowned out. God is with us.
And there is more, even than that. Advent is not only about looking backward to the Nativity. It is also about looking forward to Christ’s return, to that day on the far side of the newscast, beyond the worst the world can throw at God’s children, when God will finally say, “Enough!” and the one who begins as the babe in the manger will reign in love over all things. After the newscast forever ends, the carol’s final refrain will go on, not as an echo, but as the world’s only truth. That is Advent hope. That is what we are to anticipate with expectancy. Believe it, friends, and do not be afraid.
[i] Luke 1:30
[ii] Cf. Mark 4:40, Mark 5:36, John 14:27, etc.