Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Better Christmas Carols #2 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” by Ken Sehested

As readers of this blog know, I already think that this traditional carol is one of the best Advent/Christmas carols around. The lyrics are already subversive of our rich, complacent, self-satisfied status quo. But when we sing the same lyrics year after year, we can cease to notice their power.  Rev. Ken Sehested, radical Baptist preacher, formerly the founding Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, currently co-pastor of Circle of Mercy congregation in Asheville, NC has done us a great favor by writing new lyrics for this hymn that bring out anew its utter radicality.

O come, thou fount of Mercy, come

And light the path of journey home

From Pharaoh’s chains grant liberty

From Herod’s rage, confirm thy guarantee

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Watchful Keeper, bestow

Glad heart, warm home to creatures below

Give cloud by day and fire by night

Guide feet in peace with heaven’s delight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Secure the lamb, the wolf no longer preys

Secure the child, no fear displays

The vow of vengeance bound evermore

God’s holy mountain safe and adored

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Arise, you fear-confounded, attest

With Insurrection’s voice confess

Though death’s confine and terror’s darkest threat

Now govern earth’s refrain…and yet

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O spring, from Jesse’s root, the ransom flower

From Mary’s womb, annunciating power

Bend low you hills, arise you prostrate plain

All flesh shall see, all lips join in refrain:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, announce the Blessed Manger’s reach

All Herod-hearted, murd’rous plans impeach

Abolish every proud and cruel throne

Fill hungry hearts, guide every exile home.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

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December 20, 2010 Posted by | Advent, composers, hymns, liturgy, worship | Leave a comment

Better Christmas Carols #1 “Cry of a Tiny Babe” by Bruce Cockburn

Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he don’t understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says “God did this and you’re part of the scheme!”
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says “forgive me I thought you’d been with some other man.”
She says “what if I had been – but I wasn’t anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today”

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
‘Cause the governing body of the Holy Land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there’s a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you’ve got  ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It’s a Christmas gift [that] you don’t have to buy
There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Advent, composers, liturgy, worship | Leave a comment

The Magnificat: Song of Mary-the-Social-Revolutionary

In Christian art, she is usually depicted as a meek maiden and a passive figure.  This taming, this domestication of Jesus’ Mother, Miriam (whose name we Anglicize as “Mary”) falsifies her.  I think in most of Church History, the bigwigs have been afraid of Mary.  Her song of praise (the Magnificat) after the angel’s announcement is almost always sung in Latin–to keep ordinary people from realizing just how revolutionary her words are.  Now Mary doubtless sang in Aramaic and we don’t have the Aramaic original.  Luke’s Greek text (given below) may have been informed by a Christian community in which Mary was a member or even a leader, but in its present form was clearly modelled on Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  Mary expects her Son’s birth to lead to a “Great Reversal,” the scattering of the proud, the putting low of the rich and powerful, and the lifting of the poor and filling of the hungry.  This is no meek maiden nor anyconservative defender of the status quo: Mary is a prophet of social justice who would be called “Commie” by Fox News and the Religious Right! Bring it on, Sister Mary!

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον
καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ.
ἰδού γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός,
καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ,
καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς
τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ,
διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων
καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς,
πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν
καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ,
μνησθῆναι ἐλέους,
καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν
τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Advent, Bible, liturgy | 2 Comments

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

According to the common calendar of the Western Church, today (28 November 2010) is the First Sunday of Advent.  The term “advent,” comes from the Latin adventus and means “coming,” or “arrival.”  It was used by the Latin Fathers of the early Church to translate the Greek word παρουσια (parousia) which, in both the New Testament and the early Greek Fathers was used to refer to the “Return” or “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ at the end of Age.  (I use quotation marks around the common terms “Return of Christ” or “Second Coming of Christ,” because, of course, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ is not absent but present in, with, and to the Church Universal, the individual Christian, and each gathered community of believers. The term refers to the promised Bodily Return of the Risen Christ.)  The early church celebrated Advent not only as preparation for Christmas (originally “Christ’s Mass,” the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ), but as hope for the Second Advent as well.  They saw deep connections between the longing of Exilic and Post-Exilic Jews for the coming of the Messiah and the Christian longing for Christ’s parousia (after all, Christians believed–and still believe–that Jesus of Nazareth was/is the promised Messiah/Christ/Anointed One of messianic Jewish hopes).

As such, Advent expresses moods of yearning for the future (out of full awareness of the pain and suffering of the present) with that of anticipation, hope, peace, joy, and love.  In much of contemporary Christian life, however, especially in the U.S., the connection of Advent with the Second Advent has been severed.  The Christian groups whose liturgies make much of Advent usually want nothing to do with groups which have an obsession over eschatology (“last things”)–especially since the latter groups are often dominated by Dispensationalist theologies–the Hal Lindsey books, the Scofield Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, the horrid Left Behind novels (with bizarre fantasies of Christian commandos and Christian death squads!), opposition to peacemaking and the United Nations, and “Christian Zionism” which blindly supports the modern, secular nation of Israel with a belief that it can do no wrong no matter how it abuses the human rights of Palestinians–Christian as well as Muslim. But if Advent is only a preparation to celebrate the Incarnation, it can simply be a memorial service and the church can lose the living hope for an Ultimate Salvation that closes out the story of history.  As one deeply influenced by Moltmann’s theology of hope, I find such a prospect disturbing.

Is there a way to reconnect Advent and Second Advent without the baggage of the “prophecy charts,” date calculators and all the rest?  I hope so and believe so.

Advent should be a liturgical sign of the counter-cultural nature of the life of the Church.  The Church prepares for Christmas by remembering the sufferings of Israel as Israel awaited the Coming of the Promised One–and it reflects on the sufferings of the Church and the World as we await parousia of Christ and the God who is always Coming, always meeting us from the future.  The world (contemporary culture–including the world that has taken up residence in the Church) prepares for Christmas with an orgy of consumerist greed, debt, excess, opulence.  The world prepares to celebrate the birth of a Child from a poor family (who were at least temporarily homeless) by doing everything it can to ignore the poor–or make them ashamed of their poverty and want.  The world prepares to celebrate the Prince of Peace by making more war–or sending greetings and Christmas dinners to the military personnel that, at least in the lower ranks, are the pawns of said war. And the wars and the greed are DEEPLY connected.

And so the Church needs Advent to help resist the corrupting influence of the World. (I use the term “world” here not to refer to the earth, nature, or the inhabited world that “God so loved,” but, as the Johannine Writings usually do, to refer to the System that opposes all that is of God: military and economic empire. Walter Wink has rightly called this the “Domination System.”) In resistance to “Black Friday,” we need “Buy Nothing Day.”  And we need to find alternative ways of preparing for Christmas than mindless consumerism–we need to Reclaim Christmas and redirect our assets to serving the poor, the marginalized and oppressed. (In the coming days, I’ll describe practices from my congregation and others to help focus Advent and Christmas as Christian rather than pagan [worldly, imperial, consumerist] holidays.)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Refrain

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Refrain

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

Refrain

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Refrain

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Refrain

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all humankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Refrain

Amen! Maranatha!

November 28, 2010 Posted by | Advent, liturgy | 1 Comment