Season Advent 1
Scripture Isaiah 2: 1-5
Romans 13: 11-14
Prayer Loving One, as we begin this new season, this time of fresh beginnings, we ask for your blessings upon us. Blessings that help us to prepare to move beyond the loss and struggle of this past year, and look hopefully into a new year with joy. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, our Love and our Life. AMEN
The Hope in Joy
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the liturgical year. During Advent we spend 4 weeks preparing for the coming of Christ. However, the term “the Coming of Christ” is intentionally ambiguous. In fact, there are three “comings of Christ,” that date all the way back to the theology of St Bernard of Clairvaux in the early 12th Century. According to St. Bernard, Christ comes first as an infant on Christmas morning. We hear this anticipated through the prophetic words of Isaiah, announcing a time of peace on God’s holy mountain, a time when swords are beaten into plowshares, when war will cease. The birth of a savior and a season of hope when Christ walks on earth, teaches and preaches.
The second way that we speak of “the Coming of Christ” is often called “The Second Coming.” The return of Christ is a hopeful time when we anticipate Christ’s physical return to earth. Perhaps you are familiar with the eerie poem by William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
(The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?)
Today we heard from Paul in his letter to the Romans encouraging us to wake from our sleep, to prepare for our salvation, to, by George, regain our sense of conviction about our world. To treat people, not according to the Golden Rule, but to treat them according to the platinum rule, that tells us to treat others as they would like to be treated. Not only that, but to be found treating others and all of creation just this way when Christ returns. “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
The Christmas Carol, Joy to the World, is about this second coming of Christ. “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!” Even more surprising, the carol is based on a psalm, a writing that predates even the first coming of Christ!
Originally, it was written by Isaac Watts, who was an English poet and outspoken clergy person. He paraphrased the carol and published it under the name “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” in 1719. That make is 300 years old this Christmas. Watts commented on the hymn writing: “I have formed out of the 98th Psalm I have fully exprest what I esteem to be the first and chief Sense of the Holy Scriptures . . ..” For Watts, the singular value of the psalms was to point to the Christian Scriptures.
Clearly Watts took a great deal of liberty with Psalm 98, which reads like this…
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.” (KJV)
George Frederic Handel, although a contemporary with Isaac Watts, turned out to be a second unwitting collaborator on Joy to the World. Others later pieced together portions of Handel’s Messiah to make up the tune that we sing in North America. Apparently this kind of borrowing was common, and came from the idea that the music of great musicians had great beauty.
Joy to the World made it to the United States thanks to the efforts of Lowell Mason, a Boston music educator. An influential musician, Mason published his own arrangement of the Handel melody in Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836) and named the tune Antioch. While this is not the only tune to which Watts’s text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one. Ironically, this tune remains virtually unknown in Great Britain.
There is one exception to the use of Psalm 98. It is found in the third verse, which we will explore later in this Advent Season.
The verse goes like this:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
The “curse” refers to the passage in Genesis when God curses Adam and Eve for eating the fruit of the tree and Romans, which speaks to the sin of humanity.
Interestingly, this somewhat odd turn in the third verse leads to my final point this morning. It has to do with the third way that St. Bernard postulated the Coming of Christ, and that is in our hearts each day. There are some who wonder why we can’t be hopeful and joyful every day of the year? Why can’t everyday be Christmas? There is even a 1996 Sesame Street special that includes a song about how every day can’t be Christmas, or it wouldn’t be special. The song is sung by Santa himself, which makes me wonder if there isn’t a bit of job security and self-interest there. To that, I say “Bah, Humbug!” Bad Theology! Every day is Christmas when Christ is born in our hearts!
And this is where the hope is in our joy. That every day of our lives we can choose to make room for Christ. We can pray, meditate, walk, share our journey with a friend, read scriptures, volunteer or donate. We can say there is room at the inn, the personal inn of our hearts. We can do that every day! Not just on December 25, but every day of our lives.
We can even sing a 300 year old Christmas Carol any day of the year we choose. Because it is about our relationship with Christ, about making room, and the gift of hope.