“Heaven is Singing for Joy / El Cielo Canta Alegria,” (#382) was written in 1958, but/and Glory to God is the first Presbyterian hymnal to include it. The notes below the hymn read as follows:
“Written in 1958 for a picnic of theological students in Argentina, this piece represents the first Christian hymn in the 20th century to use Latin American folk music. The text is based on Jesus’ saying that heaven rejoices at the repentance of each sinner (Luke 15:7).”
Rev. Neddy Astudillo, who lived in Argentina from 1969-1975 while her father was in seminary at ISEDET – the seminary where Pablo Sosa composed this and many other songs – reflects on her experience growing up with Sosa’s music:
My early years were filled with music, partly because I lived close to the musical talents of composer Pablo Sosa. While my father studied theology at the ISEDET seminary (Instituto Superior Evangelico de Estudios Teologicos), Pablo Sosa was the director of the Music Department, and his children my playmates. Unlike many other seminaries, theological students were taught not only theology but also music. The seminary’s music department provided musical and liturgical education and services to an international body of students, their families and congregations. Diversity was the flavor of the seminary and a huge focus of Sosa’s work, which carried into the joy of every gathering.
The late 60s were also times of political turmoil and social injustice in Argentina. While I felt protected inside this wonderful faith community – with its halls of classrooms and housing for students, professors, and their families – there was great political repression outside our walls, and people were being “disappeared.” On one occasion a bomb was placed at the door of the seminary, near the chapel. It was a miracle that it did not explode.
I learned that music is not a means to dissociate ourselves from a dangerous world, but an expression of our experience, a type of peaceful protest, and a way of entering into the world to transform it.
“Heaven is singing for joy, Alleluia! For your life and mine will always bear witness to God!” Yes! This song represented a real struggle and experience that empowered people to live out the Gospel in spite of the social injustice we were experiencing. The liturgy and music carried our faith, soothed our fears, and brought us together as a diverse people of God.
Those years worshiping with ISEDET were life-forming. I learned that music is not a means to dissociate ourselves from a dangerous world, but an expression of our experience, a type of peaceful protest, and a way of entering into the world to transform it.
When my father finished seminary we moved back to Venezuela. The political environment appeared different, but in reality, there was still poverty, inequality and repression. However, the nationalization of the oil industry was creating a sense of bonanza and wealth that kept many uncommitted to seeking social justice.
What do we sing in this new context? This was one of my father’s questions as he began his ordained ministry. Translated Western hymns were the norm. But throughout Latin America, there was a political, social, and theological awakening to sing to God in our own language, from our own experiences, rhythms, and instruments. “El cielo canta alegria… porque en tu vida y la mia brilla la Gloria de Dios” (Heaven is singing for joy … for in your life and mine is shining the glory of God). As oppressed people, we needed to believe that God was also speaking directly to us, from us, within us.
Today, as a pastor for an ecumenical and multicultural immigrant congregation in the USA, I can’t help but notice how the church continues to cross borders and boundaries with music. For now, I am invited to sing Pablo Sosa’s hymn “El Cielo Canta Alegria” – not just in Spanish but also in English.
At the same time, the history of this song in my life, makes me hopeful for the justice issues we face as a church today, like immigration reform and environmental justice issues. It also helps me see the places where we still fall short and how, through the powerful ministry of music, we can continue to live into this song’s vision of God’s Reign – a vision that includes all peoples and all of creation.
As oppressed people, we needed to believe that God was also speaking directly to us, from us, within us.
While hymnals are a great resource for pastors and churches, the creative process of writing and singing new songs that speak from our new experiences of life and faith needs to keep happening in our theological schools, homes, churches, and the larger community. It is one of the many ways we reflect the image of God and mirror God’s own creative activity.
I have always been surprised that none of our creation stories mention music. When I read these stories, I hear a rhythm that creates music in my mind. I believe that music must have been present at the beginning of creation; perhaps the writers just forgot to mention it. Maybe they weren’t listening closely enough to hear.
AUTHOR BIO: Neddy Astudillo is an eco-theologian, a graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and a candidate for a D.Min. in Eco-justice Ministries and Eco-spirituality at Drew University. Neddy, a Venezuelan-American, is the pastor of an Ecumenical (ELCA/PCUSA) Latino ministry in Beloit, Wisconsin. Neddy lives in Northern Illinois with her husband Tom Spaulding and their three teenagers, where they moved eleven years ago to help start the Angelic Organics Learning Center, an exciting and engaging place to learn about food, farming, and caring for the earth. As part of her doctoral program, Neddy has taught Eco-Theology in several Latin American seminaries: CEDEPCA in Guatemala, AETE in Perú, and ISEAT in Bolivia. Neddy is a co-author of the National Council of Churches’ Declaration “God’s Earth is Sacred”, and of its corresponding book: (2011). Neddy was also published in David Rhoad’s book Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet. Neddy shares her passion for God’s creation through worship, workshops and a Spanish-language website: eco-justicia.org.
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