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Monday, November 4, 2013

Songstories 17: "The Road to Jerusalem" (1984, NALR)

As we dive into the chilly waters of November, its Sunday gospels populated with stories from Jesus's last days, before and after the entry in Jerusalem, I wanted to bring out "song stories" of a few pieces I've written over the years for this time of year. I've done posts already on a few, notably "Thy Kingdom Come," "Trumpet in the Morning," and "New Jerusalem." I hope to cover three more in the coming weeks leading up the the Solemnity of Christ the King. Two of these I co-wrote with my daughter Claire on our 2001 collection Keep Awake, the title song, and another entitled "Apocalypse." Today's post is about a song that antedates all the other five.

"Road to Jerusalem" is a setting of Psalm 122 that I wrote over thirty years ago, updating the text of this psalm of ascent (sung by pilgrims on their way to the Holy City) with echoes of present situation in Israel. For me, it puts the liturgy in the context of journey, of the journey to our best selves, our future, the reign of God, but it also helps to suggest the road to Jerusalem that Jesus walks in the gospel when is journey is briefly interrupted by the encounter with Zacchaeus, plotting Sadduccees, and a cosmos turned upon itself as a result of its own addiction to greed and violence. All of the nascent chaos that is roiling in the gospel plays out in the Holy Land today; Psalm 122 adjures people of every time and place to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” And when we pray for Jerusalem culticly, we don’t pray just for a city in time and place, but for the Jerusalem that is the city of God, the “City of Shalom,” the church, and by extension, the human race.

I don't remember exactly when I first wrote this, but I think it was 1978 or so. In my zeal to adapt the psalm as an entrance or gathering song for Eucharist, I took some liberties with the psalm text itself, something I'd be more circumspect about today. Tony Barr, the well-known poet, musician, and scholar has always been very complimentary about the song, and said he first noticed my music because of it. A bit of an iconoclast himself, that probably gives you a clue about his interest! I would just say, at this point in my life, that the text was inspired by Psalm 122, maybe parallel to it, but not really a translation or even a paraphrase.
1. I would laugh when I used to hear, "May we meet next year in Jerusalem!"
But here I am, walking through your gates, O Jerusalem.

2. Jerusalem, jewel on a hill, stands rebuilt from the ruins of warfare.
I sit and watch as the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord.

3. Long ago it was written, I know, we should praise the Lord in Jerusalem,
For there it is told that the kings of old ruled with the power of God.

4. Pray for peace in the Holy Land, and may those who love her find happiness,
In peace at last, with their borders fast, their gates thrown wide to the world.

R. I rejoiced when I heard them say, "Let us go to the house of the Lord."
(all lyrics copyright © 1983 NALR. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.)

The composer's notes include two verses based on the entrance antiphons "Pueri hebraeorum" for Palm Sunday, so that the refrain can be used on that day as well:
Jesus came to Jerusalem, and the populace came out to meet him.
They lay their cloaks on the road and sang, "Hosanna to David's son!"

Hebrew children bore branches of palm, and aloud they sang glad hosannas,
And so they foretold like the seers of old Messiah would rise from the dead.
For the many years we sang this song before its publication, we did it with just the three-part choir arrangement and ensemble instruments. For its recording on the You Alone album in 1984, when it was the first song on side A, we recorded it with guitar, bass, drums, and piano, with a trumpet trio. On the 2000 re-recording on Cries 2, we used strings and a single trumpet. The biggest change in the performance today from 35 years ago (for me) is that I pulled a trick out of the Paul Simon-Sting playbook, and lowered the key to the vocal-friendly C from the more guitar-friendly D. I guess that's why performers use all those differently-tuned guitars on stage? ;-)

The etymology of "Jerusalem" suggests that it comes in antiquity from words suggesting a place built in honor of the Canaanite god "Shalem," the god of dusk or evening, but that the consonants (s,l,m) are the same as the Hebrew "shalom," the harmony that God provides. The end of the liturgical year has us all thinking about the ultimate meaning of things, the meaning of life itself, what Christ means, what community means, what death means. "Going to the house of the Lord" is a metaphor for all that. But the psalm grounds us in this world, in our pilgrimage to peace and meaning through a battleground and graveyard. Nevertheless, we are inspired by making the journey together, and take heart from the rejoicing of our song along the way. In the year's evening, we remember that the journey may be uphill, but its destiny is the house of the Lord, the city of peace, Jerusalem.

Psalm 122: The Road to Jerusalem - link to page at