Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Text: Gracia Grindal (1943-). Tune: Iteke Prins, or Christus, der ist mein Leben
1. When Christmas lights are sparkling
All through the busy town,
And festive choirs are singing,
There’s music all around.
2. Our hearts are filled and cluttered;
There seems to be no place
For God the Lord of Advent
To come with light and grace!
3. O come, Lord, rend the heavens
And break into our hearts,
Where it is cold and lifeless,
To drive away the dark.
4. Bring fire to cleanse our dwellings,
And fill us with your light.
Make way for joy and gladness,
And take away our night!
Text © 2012 Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc.
Advent 1, the great text from Isaiah, praying the Lord will come and even wondering if he is hiding from us. Quite apropos now. This hymn was written long before anyone could have imagined we would be on a long quarantine and everything shut down. Now we are caught in a social experiment never tried before. Usually the sick were quarantined. Now everyone is. I worry about the effects of isolation on the elderly, living and dying alone, and the young. We have no data on what the effects of this will be. Most organizations, from WHO on down, are advising that children be in school where they are safer from abuse and other pathologies. Children are made human and kept healthy by being with others. We all are. God, help us. Come down!
The Isaiah passage is important to hear in this time. It speaks quite directly to our situation. We can still put up our Christmas lights and trees and be busy preparing for Christmas. We can keep the music playing in the house and enjoy what family we have with us. As we await Christmas, we are also waiting for the Lord to “rend the heavens and break into our hearts.” It is in times of waiting that our eyes are turned to texts like this. Do something! Change something! Break into our isolation!
The Christian tradition describes original sin as being “curved in upon ourselves/incurvatus se.” As I examine my own heart in these times I have to admit the isolation has done little to cure me of being curved in on myself. Being alone—although I am privileged to have children in the house along with their parents so I am not nearly so isolated as I was—keeps me focused on myself. There is no one around to tell me what I have done wrong today!
One of the things I am doing, in addition to these blogs, is reviewing some books. One of them is a recent translation of a novel Faith Alone: The Heart of Everything, (1943/2020) by Bo Giertz, the late bishop of Gothenburg, Sweden. The story involves two brothers living at the time of the Reformation during the civil wars of the 1540s in Sweden. Both are religious. They are on opposing sides and it is nasty. One, having been persuaded by Luther’s arguments, leaves the Roman church to follow the Lutheran king, Gustavus Vasa I. The other, a priest, remains. When the two meet after some time, the Protestant is now married with a wife and baby. The priest asks his married brother what being married is like. His brother answers that marriage is a school for faith. When his puzzled brother asks why, he answers that only after marriage did he understand what a great sinner he was. “As long as I lived the celibate life, I ruled over myself. Then it is no great skill to pretend to be a sanctified soul.” He goes on to describe how much more difficult it is to be saintly when one’s spouse interrupts one for help mending a shuttle or one’s child screams in the night. “A man learns to live from pure mercy.”
The insight here is piercing. Christ needs to come to me, my heart curved in on myself and my own works and ways. I need a Savior to come and clean house. We all need a redeemer to come into the world and clear away our idols, maybe especially the delusion that we are in charge of our own destiny. We are not. God is.
Meanwhile let us pray to the Lord of heaven, come down and fill our hearts with light.
HYMN INFO This text is from the collection of hymns on the OT lectionary, Series B, Advent 1, I wrote in 2010 the Saturday night before Advent Sunday. Wayne Leupold had asked me in 2004 whether I would be interested in writing a hymn on every Bible lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary. At the time I was 61 and thought the door was shutting on my creative activity. His request opened a door into a bright future for me.
Every Saturday night for ten years, after the weather report, I would go down into my living room, and, if it was winter, start a fire in my Jøtul stove. After a brief prayer and some study I would start. By midnight I would be done with a first draft and retire. During the week I would fuss with it, while reading commentaries on the upcoming lesson.
This setting is by Iteke Prins. She was born in Holland before WWII broke out, and lived there through the war. She remembers being taken by bicycle as a young child to be with a relative where she might be safer, food and clothing a constant worry. After the war she and her family emigrated to Canada and then to New York where she became a nurse and church musician. Now retired, she is continuing to compose tunes for new hymn texts. She set the entire collection of OT Series B texts for this collection. When I hear her music, I hear the grit of a young girl in wartime being bicycled through the winter snows of Holland toward safety.
The text can be sung to a simple, but wonderful, old chorale melody, Christus, der ist mein Leben—Christ, who is my life.
Andrew Remillard—piano of Bach’s harmonizaton
Daniel Bonevac—a fine piece featuring the melody in a cantata by Johann Schelle https://youtu.be/u6WPu7u8_W0
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