This year we are trying to offer opportunities for faith formation on Sunday morning and Wednesday evenings. So, in the fall, we had an introduction to Spiritual Formation, a course called "Making Sense of Scripture" and the DVD series "Animate: faith." I wondered what to do for the short weeks of Advent, and hit on the idea of a carol study.
So every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening we sing, and study a different Christmas carol. We learn a little about the text and the tune, and the story behind it. We look up the Bible passages associated with the text. We talk a little bit about what the carol means to us, when we first heard it, how we might hear differently now than we did when we were five years old.
We also sing the carol. Twice, if there's time. It's a little subversive pushback to the "no Christmas carols until Christmas" meme.
The first carol we sang, and studied, was "Once in Royal David's City." It's a song I didn't really know as a small child; I didn't get accustomed to it until I started buying the choral albums from the famous choirs in Great Britain, and listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio. Some of our group had known it for a long time; others were just singing now, tonight, for one of the first times ever.
None of us knew that Cecil Alexander was a woman, a young woman who liked to write poetry, and was worried that her father would disapprove. We didn't know that the carol was originally written for children, to help teach them a portion of the Apostles Creed.
Though this is not one of the carols I grew up with, and know by heart, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears at that last verse, thinking of my father and his recent death:
Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high;
there his children gather round, bright like stars, with glory crowned.
I couldn't help thinking about my father, now shining with glory.
Another person noted the line in the second verse, "with the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior lowly." She thought it was a good idea that the hymn writer reminds us that Jesus lived not among the rich and powerful, but with the ordinary and the struggling.
Yet another person expressed some frustration with the hymn though. Sure, Jesus lived with the poor and meek and lowly while he was on earth, she said. But then it seems that in the next verse, it's all about Jesus leading his children on 'to the place where he has gone.' What about, instead of singing about us all following Jesus to heaven, we could sing about all of us following Jesus to be with the poor and the meek and the lowly? What about acknowledging that Jesus still lives among the poor and meek and lowly, even now?
She has a point.
I can rationalize that these carols were written at a time when infant and child mortality was higher; I can also point out that probably the children who gather round in glory at the last verse are also some of the poor and meek and lowly. At least I imagine it that way. Those who follow Jesus, living plain and unlettered lives, will someday shine like the sun.
But, maybe I'm reading between the lines.
There's a fine line between escapism and hope. The hope of the resurrection makes us yearn to see creation restored, to long for the time when the lowly ones will shine, will be seen for who they really are. My passion for social justice does not preclude the hope that I will be reunited with those I love (and those I don't love, to be honest) as we gather around the throne of the Lamb. But when does that hope become escapism? When do we use the promise of heaven to ignore the hurts and injustices on God's beloved earth?
Just now I read a story about an incident in Iceland. The police there killed an armed man. This is a rare occurrence in Iceland. It was the first time that police officers had killed someone since 1944. And then the police actually apologized for killing a man. You know what my first thought was, "Honey, let's move to Iceland!" Escapism.
Escapism leads us straight to heaven. But hope leads us back to earth again. Hope sees the promise of the resurrection as a clue to abundant life right now.
Especially at this time of the year, with the message of the incarnation, maybe we should sings songs that tell us that, since God has come here and walked upon this beloved earth, let us plant our feet firmly on the earth, and walk in the ways of mercy and justice, as he did.