Hope is a Rebel’s Song

On a recent podcast, my colleague Jennifer Watley Maxell offered that “hope is not scarce, and it is not fragile.”  Our conversation took other turns, leaving that important insight behind.  I want to return to it now.  “Hope is not scarce, and it is not fragile.”

Honestly, this statement needs some defending in a world like ours.  Surrounded by all the skepticism, pain, injustice, and anxiety our culture displays, Mary offers the best testimony to hope:


My soul magnifies the Lord,

     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for God has looked with favor on the lowly state of God’s servant.

    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is God’s name;

 indeed, God’s mercy is for those who fear God

    from generation to generation.

 God has shown strength with God’s arm;

    God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones

    and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty.  

(Luke 1:46b-53)


Hope is often eroded by anxiety.  Seth Godin writes:  “If we define anxiety as experiencing failure in advance, we can also understand its opposite:  anticipation.”

Yet anticipation can become a channel for anxiety.  Will this happen?  Will I avoid that trap?  Will I survive this?  Can our future be bright? 

For many years, the most popular Christmas song in America has been “The Christmas Song” (aka the “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” song).  The second most popular is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which debuted in the 1943 movie musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland.

The most familiar version today is the one Frank Sinatra sang:


Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

From now on, our troubles will be out of sight


Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Make the yuletide gay

From now on, our troubles will be miles away


Here we are as in olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us once more


Through the years we all will be together

If the fates allow

Hang a shining star upon the highest bough

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now


That’s the 1957 version, the one Sinatra recorded after complaining to the song’s composer, Hugh Martin, that the Garland version wasn’t “jolly enough” for Christmas. The version that Judy Garland sang did not end, “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

In Meet Me in St. Louis, which opened during the hard days of World War II, Garland had sung instead:


Someday soon we all will be together

If the fates allow

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now


And those lyrics had been changed from the original version that was deemed too hard to handle:


Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last


No good times like the olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who were dear to us

Will be near to us no more


But at least we all will be together

If the Lord allows

From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now


Garland’s muddle-through-somehow version hasn’t disappeared altogether.  It makes occasional appearances in benefit concerts after tragedies like 9/11 (where it was sung by James Taylor) or Hurricane Sandy (where it was sung by Billy Joel). But the version heard in stores and on Spotify feeds these days is always and only the happy tune.

Like the serial re-writers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” we often feel the need to water down the hope we have been given by God’s promise, so it is not mocked in the public square. We might try singing a happier tune. Maybe even get the lyrics changed, to cover over our anxiety.

Mary does no such thing. As in all holy songs, Mary faces reality—the radical upheaval of God’s coming.  Mary trusts hope’s promise.  Mary is not singing of “golden days of yore.”  She is looking forward—which for her, an unwed 14-year-old pregnant girl, living in a culture where she is nothing—is a future that looked bleak and heartbreaking.

Yet, she leans into God’s future and God’s hope.  She trusts in a future where she will not be broken, and this world will not be broken.  She lives in that hope.  Mary’s song is audacious in not giving in to anxiety.  It is a rebel song that rocks the foundations of the world we know.

All holy songs face reality, trust hope’s promise, and are audacious in rejecting anxiety’s pull.  All holy songs are rebel songs.

Mary’s song is a rebel song that we desperately need today.  Yes, it starts out with the beauty of Mary’s pronouncement that her soul magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God.  But then notice the turn it takes.  God doesn’t just look with favor on her, but rather on her lowliness.  God notices Mary—her station and her struggle—and, more even than that, God takes her side.  The Bible always is on the side of every person who is of little account in the world, and who trusts God for their redemption.

What would it be like to just let Mary’s song surround us?  What would it be like to hear God’s hope as real and durable and abundant?  What if we were to live – and crucially, what if our faith communities were to live – as if this were the most powerful truth in all creation?

Several years ago, the Irish American folk group “The Roches” embarked on a project to collect people’s prayers.  They clarified:  they didn’t want Book of Common Prayer prayers.  They wanted prayers people actually prayed, and then they set some of them to music.

One is called “Hallelujah!”  It’s by a woman named Frankie Harris, who has AIDS.  It’s a rebel, gospel song in a slightly different key.




dear most merciful God

humbly I approach your throne

of grace and mercy

thank you

for putting your hand in the midst

of our trials and tribulations

cause you bless me

so many times in the hospital

when I was afraid



Father I am calling out to you

bless each patient name by name

these are your children

Lord bless their families

and those who do not know

you are in this

go in Lord and touch ’em



you are the healer

give to the doctor

a heart for compassion

an ear to listen

touch the nurse

may the strength of your hand be upon them

and Lord give ’em a kind word to say

cause you are the beginning of this

and you are gonna be the end


dear most merciful God



In the liner notes of the CD, Frankie Harris writes: “This is a prayer out of once being hopeless and ending up hopeful, once traveling a road with no light and then traveling down the same road with a brighter light. I know that God had me in the palm of His hand when everyone else gave up on me. I have faced death three times and there is nothing to hold me into fear.”

All songs of hope are rebel songs, and when we sing like Mary, at the top of our lungs, we find that anxiety has, by God’s grace, become holy anticipation.  Against all odds—that literally saves our life.  In a world where we’re just “muddling through somehow,” Mary’s holy song doesn’t ever let go of the truth:  God’s hope is not scarce.  God’s hope is never fragile.

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