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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Advent 2A - Justice and fullness of peace

Edward Hicks' "The Peaceable Kingdom"
Here’s the music we’re singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering: On Jordan’s Bank (Gather 321)
Psalm 72: Justice Shall Flourish (Cooney, OCP)
Alleluia: Word of Truth and Life (159)
Preparation Rite: Come, O Lord (Dameans)
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You
Closing: Walk in the Reign (Songstories link)

The overriding voice today in the Scriptures is that of John the Baptizer, as he announces, with a cry that will be taken up later by his kinsman Jesus of Nazareth, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As I’ve written recently in other blog entries, I find the translation troublesome because language can defeat meaning as well as communicate it, and “heaven” in this sentence, as it accurately describes the domain of God, has connotations of distance and transcendence that are not better than secondary to John’s apparent meaning. John is not concerned about the future or the invisible world—his concern is the here and now, which is why he prefaces his announcement with the word “repent,” a call to turn around and do something else. I’d prefer a translation that gets at the choice involved in the proclamation, “Go the other way! The empire of God is here.” Choose, in other words, a different emperor, walk in a different country. But what country?

Isaiah and the psalmist have the answer to that question. The “kingdom” or the “empire of God” has been the hope of Israel since at least the time of the prophets in the 9th-7th centuries BCE, and the messianic hope can be traced all the way back to the Exodus narrative, in which God promised that at a climactic moment in history he would come and be with his people as himself. The characteristics of the just world of God’s dominion are hinted at all through Isaiah and the prophets, the just ruler of divine origin would be full of God’s own spirit, judging as God does with justice and righteousness on behalf of the poor and afflicted. Peace will be the character of the new age, lions and bears will graze with cows, children will play with cobras and vipers. There will be no rivalry between Jew and Gentile (i.e., no one will say, "God loves me, and not you.") The psalmist takes up the same theme, pleading that the ruler of this nation, today, crowned king, will be a king like God, who will “rescue the poor when they cry out, and the afflicted one who has no one to help.” My setting of this psalm, written over 40 years ago, God help me, is a guitar-based melody that is squarely in the folk music tradition that I grew up loving (I wrote it when I was 20). The beginning of the verse alludes to the carol “Away in a Manger," suggesting that the vision of the psalmist for a king who might be like God found a kind of subversive fulfillment in the child of Bethlehem. It’s not obvious, but it’s there. (I wrote a short fantasy about a cantor having to sing this at a temple coronation of a minor king in a blog entry called Why Liturgical Music Matters: A Fiction.)

“Walk in the Reign” tries to get at all this, which is why I thought of using it right from the start. Since we’ve done this song every advent since I got to Barrington, people know it really well.  "Walk in the Reign" tries to get at the sense of the immanence of God’s empire from the first three words of the refrain: Close as tomorrow.
Close as tomorrow the sun shall appear,

Freedom is coming, and healing is near.

And I shall be with you in laughter and pain, 

To stand in the wind, and walk in the reign.

There’s not much better to hope for. To paraphrase the late Fr. Gene Walsh, “The reign of God promises two things: Your life has meaning and you will live forever. If you get a better offer, take it.”

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