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Friday, November 29, 2013

Year A - Advent 1 - Let us walk in the light of the Lord

Swords into plowshares
Advent is that place between the Isaian dream of beating swords into ploughshares and training for war no more and the place in which we find ourselves today—still—on the brink of self-annihilation. The thing is, Isaiah and his countrymen lived on the same brink. Though the beautiful words of the prophet sound like they were written in the penthouse of the Jerusalem Hilton, they are born out of a matrix of war, siege, slaughter, and exile. The words of the prophet represent a great hope that has never died, a hope that is based on God’s action on behalf of people in the past, projected onto a future that is always just a moment away. Jesus called that moment “the empire of God.”

This week at St. Anne’s in the music, we’re doing the following:
Gathering: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell)
Psalm 122: The Road to Jerusalem (OCP)
Preparation Rite: Save the People (words by Ebenezer Elliott, music by me)
Communion: Your Light Will Come, Jerusalem (Hurd)
Recessional: The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns

Most of these songs I’ve treated before. The gathering and communion songs particularly pick up on the motif of light in the readings today, and the recessional picks up on the sense that Advent is somehow about waiting for the arrival of Christ at the end of time. This seems to be a favorite topic of homilists, and I can understand that, but the repercussions of what that means need to impact the present, or as St. Paul puts it in the second reading:
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;

the night is advanced, the day is at hand.

Let us then throw off the works of darkness

and put on the armor of light;

let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day...

Two correctives at least need to be applied to common eschatological thinking. First, the empire of God is now. It's hard to get old ideas out of our head, but when we hear "kingdom of heaven," we can not think of "heaven" as a place far off in time and space any more than we can think of "kingdom" as a place of power and gold. The preaching of Jesus continually says the the reign of God (better, right? than "kingdom of heaven") is among you, or "at hand." Second, the coming of God is not so easily detected as one might imagine, since one could argue that humanity largely missed it the first time, there’s no reason to think we won’t miss it again. Our ideas about who God is, what God must be like and must be doing, so prejudice our vision that we fail to inform our vision with the very clues and indications Jesus gave us. "I am with you always." "Whenever you did this to one of my least ones, you did it for me."

Christ continues to be present to us now: he doesn’t really have to come again, because there is a sense in which he didn’t leave us. As Emmanuel, God-among-us, he continues to be present in the Spirit-led Church in its prayer (Mt 18:20), in its missionary activity (Mt. 28:19-20), and in the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, and naked of the poor (Mt. 25:35-40). As I said above, Advent helps us to linger in hope between the promise of God’s complete presence and the manifestation of God’s absence in human sin, sickness, war, and death.

At the preparation of gifts this weekend, we are using the song "Save the People," with a melody that I wrote. Ebenezer Elliott wrote this hymn in the mid-19th century, and it still rings true today. Called "The People's Anthem" at the time, it was appropriated (without attribution) by Stephen Schwartz in the score of 1971's Godspell. On my 1985 collection Do Not Fear to Hope, I modernized his poem a little bit, and set it to a new melody for congregation and SATB, though it didn't make much of a stir!

When will you save the people?
O God of mercy, hear!
Your children die of hunger,
Their parents live in fear.
Flowers of your heart, O God, are they.
Let them not pass like weeds away,
Their heritage a sunless day.

Shall crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it your will, O Maker,
That we should toil for wrong?
No! say your mountains.
No! say your skies.
Our clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs.

When will you save the people,
O God of mercy? When?
When time is done your day will come,
But must we wait til then?
God save the people
For yours they are,
Your children as your angels fair.
Save them from bondage and despair.

When will you save the people?
Let mercy not be dead.
Your people cry for mercy,
Your children cry for bread.
Flowers of your heart,
O God, are they.
Let them not pass like weeds away,
Their heritage a sunless day.

Whatever happens, Lord Jesus, maranatha! But open our eyes so we don’t miss you. And catch us waiting on your poor ones, towel on our forearm, looking to wash their feet. More about waiting tomorrow.