Driving home from New York today, while I was thinking about today’s celebration of the Annunciation, coming a couple of weeks later than usual, I happened to hear a snippet of a an interview with the composer Richard Rodgers from 1960, included on Fresh Air. Rodgers was talking about the way he and collaborator Oscar Hammerstein worked together on writing songs. He said that Hammerstein, unlike most lyricists, liked to write the words of a song before the tune was written, without the music in his ears. “Without a tune,” Rodgers said, Hammerstein’s “lyrics are beautifully built.” The practice suited Rodgers, just fine, he said, since he, as a composer, found it helpful to have the words of a song in hand before he sat down to write the tune. He said that “having the lyric, in addition to the situation gives me an extra push to finding the solution to the problem of finding the tune.”*
The archangel Gabriel was on my mind when I heard Richard Rodgers talk about finding the solution to the problem of finding the tune. Gabriel is, by all accounts, musical. You might even say that he is a musician, most often depicted with a trumpet as his instrument, but I imagine he can play a few others as well. And I wonder if Gabriel, given the message of Good News that he was to bring to Mary, might have considered that, with these marvelous words in hand, in addition to the remarkable situation, he now had to approach the solution to the problem of finding the tune.
What kind of tune can convey the news that “thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest…. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee… [and] that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” How do you set such words to music for the first time -before anyone else has given it a go. How did Gabriel sing these words to Mary - for don’t you think he must have sung them to her? How did he find a solution to the problem of finding the tune of the Good News of the coming Incarnation of God?
Now, Mary was no musician - at least not professionally - but we know that she was musical. But she, too, must have found it difficult to come up with a tune to go with her response to the words of greeting. It would be a matter of days, at least, until her words and music were married to each other, when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, and the Magnificat burst forth from her heart and from her lips.
Given the gift of the Word, Mary’s life would now amount to finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune over and over again. How to sing to him in utero? What song to rejoice with at his birth? What lullaby to sing her infant child to sleep? What songs to teach him as a child? How to sing of her worry when he went missing? What kind of notes to use when you have to just say, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” And what sad tune to sing at his death? In this, as in every other aspect of her life, Mary proves to be a model for us. For what could any Christian do with his or her life that is better than finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune to go with the Word of God’s love that is given to us in the gift of his Son Jesus?
Perhaps we could even say that at some level this is the mission of the church, bequeathed to us by Mary: given a lyric that is beautifully built, and given the situation, to now go about finding a solution of the problem of finding the tune. Wasn’t this in many ways what the Psalmist was asking, when he asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” God’s words hadn’t disappeared, even in exile, but a tune still had to be found, and sometimes we find that a problem, the solution to which eludes us.
When I hear Gabriel arriving at Mary’s chamber again tonight, and I imagine that I feel the air stirred a little by the flutter of his wings, and I hear the great “Ave” floating from his lips, I have the sense that Mary encourages us, or allows us, to keep this commemoration of a deeply personal and intimate reality, for the express purpose of challenging us to the same task that Gabriel had to do first, and that she had to to do next, and that each of us in our own way has to do ourselves: to receive the Word of God’s love, and then to find a solution to the problem of finding the tune with which to sing that Word into the world we live in, which is so often starved for Good News, as well as for the music of God.
I don’t know how Richard Rodgers went about writing his tunes, but I am grateful for the way he expressed it: finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune. Because the end result, we know, of his work is a thing of beauty. But it did not spring from his fingers instantaneously. There was a problem to be solved - how to put these beautifully built words, given the situation, in just the right way, how to make this lyric sing? How reassuring it is to share this problem with the likes of Richard Rodgers (whose father, it turns out, had changed the family name from Abrahams, and who might be surprised to find himself enlisted in an Annunciation sermon).
I expect we also share the problem with Gabriel: finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune for the Good News that God sent his Son to be with us, to be one of us, born of a human mother, whose name was Mary, and who, when she became the Mother of God, became our mother too, since God had become human. Which means that our song is even more glorious than the songs of angels or archangels, who cannot say that they share a mother with the Son of God, as we can. Though I think we should allow them to sing along with us, all the same.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of the Annunciation, 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
*an interview of Richard Rodgers by Tony Thomas, 1960, included on Fresh Air, WHYY, “How Rogers and Hammerstein Revolutionized Broadway,” by Terry Gross, 9 April 2018