Despite my most sensitive and pastoral planning, I frequently find that the congregation’s experience of singing is beyond my control. Such was the case on the second Sunday of Advent 2013, at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Indiana. As song leader for that service, I had carefully selected a number of hymns and songs that resonated with the themes of the season and sermon. One hymn though, opened our eyes to the presence of God among us in unexpected ways. I had selected David Haas’s “Peace before us”, not for its strong connection to anything else in the service, but as a relatively easy piece to sing while people fumble with wallets and purses.
Although on the page the song is strophic, in function it is more similar to cyclical songs. The first four stanzas are repetitive and meditative, changing only what might be understood as the focal words from stanza to stanza: peace, love, light, and Christ. An additional stanza repeats the word Alleluia. Along with the simple musical structure (which features a pedal tone throughout), the text allows for an experience of singing that is non-linear and unbounded by constraints of time. Indeed, part of my intent in selecting this piece on that Sunday was so I could bring it to a close at any point if I saw that the ushers had completed their collection. As it turned out, circumstances dictated singing more rather than less.
In our worship services, the sharing of joys and concerns precedes the offering. On this morning the sharing was devastating. As if coordinated with an Advent awareness of the brokenness of the world around us, several people in the congregation had experienced tragedies within the past week. Among these, we learned that a relative of one of our members had died in the Arizona desert having crossed the border from Mexico.
“Peace before us” became a prayer in response to the pressing pain expressed during our sharing time. It moved from being a purely functional choice to being a profoundly pastoral moment of worship. Our congregation experienced it as a moment of catharsis. I saw many people break into tears, and others move to comfort them, all while continuing to sing. When we reached the Allleluia stanza*, I gestured for people to stand. We repeated singing Alleluia several more times until I felt ready to draw it to a close.
Some may argue that this type of use of music is manipulative – that the song served to artificially create an emotional experience. While I do not deny that such a use might be possible, I would contend that in this case the song was a means of expressing thought and emotion that we would have otherwise been hard-pressed to release.
While the music with its repetition and instrumental variation carried us through our time of prayer, it was the text that guided our thoughts. Haas’s words are based on a Navajo prayer – a latent connection, perhaps, to the Arizona desert death. In its grammatical ambiguity, the phrasing can be understood in several different ways. The most evident is that we sing a prayer directed to God asking for peace, love, light, and Christ to surround us. We could, however, be singing to ourselves and to one another, inviting the congregation around us to live in peace with one another and to be the living body of Christ. In either case the repetition of the text functions not only as a petition for a desired reality, but as an enactment of that reality. In singing together peace, love, light, and Christ become evident among us. The body of Christ becomes tangible. Vocal harmony enacts the peace we sing. Love is felt, and light is seen. Without changing its phrasing, the text moves us from a petition grounded in a sense of absence to born of evidence. When we have reached that point, the appropriate response is praise: Alleluia.
The author: This story comes to us from Adam M. L. Tice, Mennonite pastor and noted hymn writer. This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. It was first published as “Hymn Interpretation: ‘Peace Before Us’, The Hymn, 65 (Winter 2014), 29-30.
*Note: Lift Up Your Hearts does not have the 5th Alleluia stanza printed. An alternative would be to repeat the first verse, Peace, before us.