To Give Them Songs For Sighing

By Arend Jessurun

My favorite seasons of the church year are those seasons of longing. I could be very happy making an entire year out of one of these seasons of bright sadness. The season of Advent, in particular, is to me that perfect blend of bittersweet.

Part of my affection for Advent has simply to do with the weather. Having spent the first years of my life in the Sierra Nevada, I get all nostalgic about the winter. The night air is sharp with cold and chimney smoke. Spots of light break through and blinter in the dark. California gets its annual rain (although it’s lamentably never quite enough). I think to myself, this is living.

Advent for me gives expression to what living feels like most days. This life is a great in-between, haunted with a longing for something unutterable, a hazy nostalgia of something forgotten. And it’s a balm on my soul to pray and sing on Sunday words which pronounce these deeper, darker feelings.

During this time when we imaginatively figure ourselves in the stories of turn-of-the-Anno-Domini Jewish Palestine, these stories help us make sense of our own need for God to show up here and now. As we turn our attention to await that eternal morn, we may awaken to our own languishment. And as we languish, we may wonder—sometimes despairingly—how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Songs of praise do not come easily to the bereaved. As Eugene Peterson translates Proverbs 25:20, “Singing light songs to the heavyhearted is like pouring salt on their wounds.” I plan music for Advent worship services with this in mind, especially conscious that the holidays are a weary season for many. I remember when Christ came, His ministry was one of compassion, of suffering with the destitute and disconsolate. In the words of James Montgomery’s “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” Christ comes “to give them songs for sighing.” The hymn lists this one of Christ’s offerings alongside in importance with His acts of justice, help, and deliverance. And since a great deal of our time is spent waiting for justice, help, and deliverance, what are we to do without songs for sighing?

It is a vital part of music ministry to give our congregations songs that allow us to express our sadness. And we imitate Christ, who suffered-with, when we do so. Like the relief that comes from getting something off one’s chest: it’s the sorrow that leads to a change of heart, as St. Paul writes; it’s tearfully planting but harvesting joy, as the psalmist sings; it’s the blessedness, the true happiness, of being poor, mournful, meek, and hungry, as Jesus teaches. For we will be comforted when He comes.

Last night it rained again, the evidence of which is in puddles on the ground. Nature and all things outside seem to incarnate a voice. That voice goes out from the wild calling to the wildernesses of the soul. It says, “Cry!” and it says, “Comfort, comfort my people.”

Arend Jessurun

Arend is a songwriter and music director at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Long Beach, CA