Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Madonna and Child, c. 1450. Circle of Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455). The Cleveland Museum of Art.
When I read this passage, my mind instantly fills with music. First Handel’s Messiah, a powerful, beautiful and mature piece. Then “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell, an energetic and youthful, but no less powerful piece. The pieces present such different ideas: the idea of comfort – calming and peaceful and deserved, a parent comforting a child – and a herald exclaiming the joy of preparing for the coming Lord. I have struggled to come to terms with the two views. How do they come together as one passage and one message? It was in the struggle, and discussion with others, that I realized the two passages are not truly separate but in fact linked, particularly when viewed through the season of Advent.
The first portion of Isaiah talks of comforting the people who have been in exile. They have been through much and “will be comforted and rewarded.” Much like the Hebrew people, in exile waiting for redemption, the early Christians were waiting for the coming of Christ and the redemption that his coming would bring. In fact, the term advent comes from the Latin word for “coming.” The second part of Isaiah moves on from comforting to tell us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” for the Lord is coming. Historically, Christians believe that they were preparing the way for the Lord to come again quickly, but as time has moved on, the date for the return has become more distant and ambiguous.
As different as the two views are, they also come together beautifully. A mature, experienced point of view may be a better source of comfort after hardship, while the anticipation of waiting for something amazing and exciting and joyful is often best seen through the eyes of a child. So while I started out thinking about music, in the end, this passage reminds me of family. During Advent particularly, we are surrounded by reminders of family. With this text I am reminded how family comforts us with the strength of our parents’ arms during times of difficulty, and jumps for joy like a five year old celebrating the coming of Christmas (ok the presents, but still!) In fact, it is the knowledge that we will be comforted if we fall that allows us to feel the joy and anticipation of the coming gift – the Messiah.
So we should sing both the classic Hallelujah with grace and majesty as we clap our hands and dance and sing Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! We should reach for our parents and grandparents, and their memories, as someone reaches for us. And we should jump for joy with the excitement of the best present EVER coming in this season of Advent.
“The Finale (The Dargason)” from St. Paul’s Suite by Gustav Holst, performed by the Monticello String Quartet.
English composer Gustav Holst was born in 1874 and went on to his great rewards in 1934. During his lifetime, he was nothing short of a prolific composer. He is most remembered for his masterworks for orchestra, The Planets. As a champion of the English Folksong Revival movement, Holst frequently employed English Folk songs as the basis for his compositions. In his St. Paul’s Suite, a multi-movement work for string orchestra, Holst combines English folksongs with newly composed melodies and sometimes with themselves. Such is the case in the final movement, “The Dargason.” Here, Holst takes the folksong “Greensleeves” and combines it was an ancient, traditional dance called “Dargason.”
I find this combination to be particularly striking for the season of Advent. We are bombarded – as early as 1 October! – with Christmas songs here in the US. By early November, street decorations are making their appearances and now that December is well underway, it’s hard to pass a moment of social media scrolling without seeing or hearing something about the great joy of Christmas. For me, it is this ‘great joy’ that Holst aptly captures in his Dargason. The rollicking tune and tempo of the dance is sure to make even the most stoic tap their foot or gently sway. While there are no words associated with the dance, it’s unmistakably joyful!
A more close look at the calendar reveals that we are not yet in the season of Christmas. It’s now Advent – the time to prepare for Christmas. In most years, finding time for that preparation is nearly impossible. Usually my December is filled to the brim with rehearsals, parties, concerts, church services, and, of course, shopping. This year, the virus has caused us all to pause. We are all experiencing a season of Advent unlike any other. Despite that pause, the joy of Christmas is just around the corner and I, for one, am eager for Christmas Eve and Morning. The tune “Greensleeves” beautifully captures a feeling of expectation and quiet joy. It is most often sung to the poem “What child is this?”
While Holst intended no religious connotation to this work, I find it an oddly appropriate movement to include in our celebration of Advent at Westminster. The combination of rollicking joy with quiet expectation seems to beautifully capture my feelings about the weeks preceding Christmas. In this week’s recording, our own String Quartet performs an arrangement of the work. It begins with the jovial “Dargason” and part way through the dance gives way to the more introspective “Greensleeves” tune.
What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ, the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king to own Him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and invites us to have a more global sense of what it means to be a neighbor. At Westminster, we practice his teaching by extending our love and care beyond our local and national boundaries. As part of your Advent devotional, we encourage you to extend your love also to those we support in places far away geographically, but very close in Spirit. Here are two suggestions:
Send a Christmas email to Paula Cooper, the Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-worker based in Zambia. As regional liaison for East Central Africa, Paula facilitates PC(USA) relationships with partner churches and institutions in Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia, where the church is growing rapidly, and pastoral training and leadership development are of major concern.
Paula also provides support for PC(USA) mission personnel and Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) in the region. Paula is the recipient of ongoing budget support through our International Missions Committee. We encourage you to email your thanks and prayers for work and ministry, identifying yourself as a member or friend of Westminster. This way, she may know that our financial support is matched by our human care. Paula may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you may copy email@example.com, so that we may echo your well wishes.
Attend the now-virtual Alternative Giving Bazaar (December 6 to 13). Funds raised at the bazaar comprise an essential portion of the funding needed to house, educate and nurture the children, youth and graduates of our partner United Orphanage Academy in Moi’s Bridge, Kenya. The event also supports our partner, the Community Coalition for Haiti, as well as Heifer Project International and Equal Exchange. To attend the bazaar, simply visit wpc-alex.org/agb, where you will find videos and introductions to these agencies and how your support can support their mission.