I am listening to the Lessons and Carols for the Choral Evensong in the first week of Advent from Rochester Cathedral in England, courtesy of the BBC. I appreciate these readings and carols, partly for the beauty of the music and partly for the depth of the readings.
Advent is a season of hope in the church's year. We anticipate the celebration of Christmas, remembering how the birth of a baby proved greater than the machinations of rulers and powers in the ancient world. The memory nurtures hope in us that the trials and terrors of our world also may prove weaker than the small blessings of our lives. A baby is born, and thousands of soldiers are sent to Afghanistan. Only hope can say that the birth is the greater event; but so proclaims Advent.
This weekend we have our annual Festival of Christmas Praise at Providence. I have a similar response to the readings and music each year in our own celebration. Hope requires constant nurture in a dangerous world.
But another note sounds in the readings and songs. Each year the hymn, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending", begins the Advent season, reminding us that the hope found in remembering the birth of Jesus is linked with the hope of his return.
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!
Come, Lord, come!
This link from youtube gives a good performance of this hymn, which is most sobering and stands alongside the hope of Advent with a kind of warning that we usually avoid today. The second verse, sung in the Choral Evensong as printed above, speaks of judgment on those who oppose the Messiah.
Judgment is a theme we prefer to omit from our thoughts about God or about the end of all things. But I don't see how to believe in hope if it does not also promise judgment. Revelation 6 pictures the saints persecuted through the ages as sitting within God's throne and crying out, "How Long, O Lord, will those who persecute us triumph?" Revelation then pictures these same saints as triumphant themselves, worshipping God with all evil removed.
I live in a world filled with evil -- from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan, and deep within my own countries of the United States and Canada. If that evil cannot be removed (because we are squeamish), I don't know how to anticipate Christ's return with any real hope. Or for that matter, how to live in the present with real hope for the future.
These thoughts are, I think, at one level somewhat simplistic or banal; but I note that they echo the lessons and carols. The lessons and carols themselves echo long and careful reflection on the core of Christian faith. As I said at the beginning, I appreciate these readings and carols, partly for the beauty of the music and partly for the depth of the readings.