Monday, November 22, 2010

Singing in Advent - Psalm 122

First Sunday in Advent, Year A
Psalm 122

The Season of Advent, the four Sundays which precede Christmas, is traditionally a time of singing. The rest of the world is playing Christmas carols in the background with Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the sounds of jingling bells. And perhaps we might sing along joyfully, knowing what is coming.

The season of Advent has this tension built into it. It is a season of expectancy and anticipation. Of preparation and watchfulness. Advent has a penitential character. It has been seen as a parallel season to Lent, with the same traditional color of the season (penitential purple) and with the same strict fast.

Yet, God love us, we have peeked under the wrappings and know that Christmas awaits, the Savior is coming but he is the One who has already come! Alleluia!

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!" (Psalm 122:1, NRSV).

This psalm-song lives in the joy the pilgrim feels when anticipating their journey to the holy city, the place they know (or imagine) that God touches earth. Singing this psalm, it is impossible to think that hope is an abstract concept, or that joy is something which is more anticipated than lived. Each also has a habitual quality. They can be practiced, rehearsed. They are virtues which need cultivation.

By imagining the end of the journey – "Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem" (verse 2) – you already begin to feel the joy of arrival in this "promised land." It may be that there is more joy in the anticipation than in many actual arrivals...

The anticipatory joy quickly turns to memory to reinforce, to solidify the imagined fulfillment of the pilgrimage, in conjuring up an image of this place and its importance: "Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David" (verses 3-5).

And it is striking how recalling the significance of Jerusalem so quickly turns to care and concern for the very stones of the holy place. Apparently even the holiest places are under threat.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.' For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good. (verses 6-9)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem... we pray, like the pilgrim, for the peace of Jerusalem. It is the tangible symbol of the shalom we urgently need in our world and in our lives. Three faiths profess it as a place where heaven and earth meet. You may look to the golden dome that now stands there, to the old rock of Zion that crowned the Temple mountain, to the mysterious lacuna of an empty tomb – or even to that vision of a new Jerusalem, a source of healing for all the nations.But the hope is not less fervent if your vision sees Amritsar or Bodh Gaya or the Black Hills.

We hope for a transformed world, for deliverance, for shalom, for a good end. Hope is not optional for the pilgrim. Nor is the joy - so often proleptic, anticipated, long-awaited - reserved only for the realization of our hopes, those moments when heaven touches the spot of earth where we are standing. We cannot save all our joy for Christmas, or for the end of whatever journey we are on. "Advent" is the coming of the holy, the real-izing of that hope which God has for our world. And it is our work to be ready, to rehearse, to practice, to live that longed-for reality.

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!"


A sign for the journey:
The previous image is of Rabbi Menachem Froman, who says that "The key to peace is peace in Jerusalem, to re-establish Jerusalem as the capital of peace in the world." See From an Israeli Settlement, a Rabbi’s Unorthodox Plan for Peace, Isabel Kershner, NYTimes 12/5/08. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.

Pointers to other texts in the day’s lectionary:

Isaiah 2:1-5
A vision of all the nations streaming to the holy mountain of Jerusalem, and the Lord teaching an end to war.

Romans 13:8-14
Pure anticipation: "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near..." (11b-12a)

Matthew 24:36-44
The gospel text inhabits a rather different world from the psalm, with the prophetic warning that the end of the age will come suddenly and unexpectedly, and urging watchfulness. Perhaps there are two good points of connection. 1) One way of maintaining watchfulness is by "going to the house of the Lord" and being attentive to your encounter with signs of the holy. 2) The peace of Jerusalem is not a feature of this age. Rather, the end of this age will see the end of the violence, warfare, and injustice which now afflicts us.