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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keep Awake - Advent 1, Year B

It’s always a little bit of a surprise when Advent starts again. For us church musicians, there’s that cold shiver unrelated to the falling snow that Christmas has to be less than four weeks away. But for everyone else, and for us, there’s also the strange sense that something new is starting at an inconvenient time, that we’re at the end of the year, but something new, a new year of grace, is beginning. And equally strangely, it seems to start about where the last year ended: at the end.

For me, mixed into this mixed-up scenario is the mass on Thanksgiving Day. We’re in a real mess here in this country, and this country is certainly not alone. But it occurred to me that it was a very small step from “thanksgiving” this week to a prayer that sounds scarily pharisaic: “I thank you, God, that I’m not like the rest of the people out there: unemployed, poor, blown to smithereens, addicted to heroin, not born in the U.S.A., homeless, illegal.” 

Maybe we sometimes revert in our hearts to the old “prayer” that goes, “there but for the grace of God go I.” That is the ultimate irony. Because according to the gospel we heard on November 23, wherever that pitiable “other” is that causes our pathos gene to fire off an RNA message to lip synch gratitude, s/he is, in fact, the grace of God passing by. The other, sick, in prison, hungry, thirsty, is me. 

So it seems that the grace involved in these encounters really isn’t pity. There’s no time for pity. Pity is a waste of time, clutching chronos rather than embracing kairos. The only response of a grateful Christian heart is action on behalf of the other. To love another person is to love Christ and God and self all at one time. To ignore or pity the other person is to do the same to our best self.

Advent is asking us, it seems to me, to rouse our wakefulness to the signs of Christ’s presence and absence. We are a mess, in Ferguson, in the Middle East, in Congress, because we're a mess inside. Isaiah admits that we’re a mess, but that things aren’t hopeless because we’re clay in the hands of the potter, we’re a work in progress. St. Paul says that everything we need is already inside of us because of the Holy Spirit’s living within us through Christ. Where is Christ in the justice system? Where is Christ in the economy? In the health care and climate change and immigration debates? In the clamor for LGBT rights? There has to be an answer. Where there are needs, there are gifts already given. What can we do about it? We can ask that question about all the places in which God seems to be hiding from us, that great Absence that makes our best deeds seem like “polluted rags,” leaving us feeling guilty and withered. 

Here we are at the end again, but at the beginning of a year, “the beginning of the gospel.” Here we are at the outset of Advent again. How will God invite us to participate in the gospel during this year of grace? First question is, where are we needed? Then, what are our gifts? What are the signs? Keep awake! 

And that is an effort in itself on these shortened days, when darkness gathers well before even an early dinner hour. Everything except the gospel seems to be telling us, “Go to sleep. It’ll be all right.” Or maybe, "Buy things. Eat more. Drink more. It'll be all right." Well, it’s not all right. But from out in the wilderness a shout of good news flies on the wind. There’s a gospel voice announcing an alternative way, and it's close, very close. Let’s try to keep awake and listen.

What we're singing at St. Anne’s on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014.

Gathering: Come to Us, O Emmanuel (Haugen, Gather 3rd ed.)
Psalm 80: Lord, Come and Save Us (Kendzia, OCP)
. Simply put, the most gorgeous, lyrical setting of Psalm 80 available. Melodically irresistible, harmonically rich, emotionally pleading. I'm prejudiced, I know, but there's no need for any other setting of this psalm.
Preparation Rite: Turn Around (Cooney, GIA, unreleased)
 The published version of this song (I've just seen the proofs in the last couple of weeks) will include the three recorded version and three optional verses for the last Sundays and Advent. The theme of the song is wrapped around a way of hearing the proclamation of John the Baptizer and then of Jesus in their ministry, "Turn around (i.e., repent) and believe in the gospel." The Advent verse is like this:
Good news, you who long to be free from the rod,
Good news, you perplexed by the silence of God.
The vile ancient spell of the merchants of death
God breaks with a word from a maid.
Come then, with voice glad and clear
Announce the good news for all people to hear,
The good news of Christ: "God's reign has come near,
Turn around and believe in the gospel."
Communion: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell, OCP)
Recessional: The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (arr. Cooney, GIA)

“Watch, therefore;

you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,

whether in the evening, or at midnight,

or at cockcrow, or in the morning.

May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.

What I say to you, I say to all:

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