I recently finished rereading Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966), a book I had kept in storage for a number of years. In the novel, Percy introduces his character Will Barrett, a confused, searching 25 year-old from the Mississippi Delta.

Barrett has bouts of amnesia and all sorts of adventures, ending up finally in New Mexico at a dude ranch, where he has gone in search of his fiancee’s brother Sutter Vaught. Upon reaching the ranch, Barrett sits down at mid-afternoon and sniffs the soil, comparing the place to his home. Percy describes the scene:

The silence was disjunct. It ran concurrently with one and did not flow from the past. Each passing second was packaged in cottony silence. It had no antecedents…. Even in the Southern wilderness there is ever the sense of someone close by, watching…. Here one was not watched. There was no one. The silence hushed everything up, the small trees were separated by a geometry of silence.

“A geometry of silence.” I have pondered that phrase for days now. I like the sound of the words together, but what could Percy mean? I even looked up “geometry” in the dictionary, seeking some definition beyond the field of mathematics.

I decided that the author intended to describe an arrangement of objects, ideas and/or events placed in such a way as to create awe and a radical sense of the present in which one is utterly alone, but also filled with possibility. The silence of the New Mexico desert was qualitatively different from that encountered elsewhere. Because of it, in it, Barrett became disconnected from all that had gone before and could entertain new possibilities, accountable only to himself.  Such silence was both delight and terror, gift and demand. All the young man’s doubts and fears and muddled musings were “hushed…up.”

Advent also envelops us in a geometry of silence. It invites us to entertain new possibilities for life as we repent. The flow from the past—the guilt, the regret, the missed opportunities—need not and will not overwhelm us. And in our weariness, we can once again know hushed wonder as we nestle in the “cottony silence” of the good news brought by angels.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

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In northern and western Europe in the 4th century AD, in the month of December, Christian missionaries emphasized repentance for new converts and spiritual disciplines for believers in preparation for the baptismal festival of Epiphany on January 6. Advent in those regions was not a time of joyful preparation for Christmas, but of solemn reflection as people looked toward a day of renewal and redemption on Epiphany and the Day of Judgment when Jesus came again.

In northern Mississippi in the 21st century AD, on December 8, the second Sunday of Advent, I attended a production of The Nutcracker put on by a local dance center. The show took place in a deconsecrated Protestant church that has been turned into an arts venue. The particular congregation that used to occupy the building practiced baptism by immersion, in keeping with their tradition.

The chancel was now the stage, but the baptistery remained (drained and dry, of course). The dance company used it creatively for certain scenes. The most striking were the ones in which, behind a mist from the baptistery, the shelf-sized nutcracker becomes life-size, and then later, becomes a real boy prince for Clara. In other words, these were times of transformation.

I not only found the director’s use of the baptistery space imaginative, I found it theologically profound, given the original connection of Advent with baptism. In that sacrament, we too are transformed, I dare say, into princes and princesses or even more, into full-fledged monarchs. “[He has] made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father….” the seer of Revelation says (1:6). We are given a new status, a fresh identity, a different purpose in baptism.

And like Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s son, we will have many adventures of discovery on our amazing journeys into wonder.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

I intended to share with you today a version of my original song “Holiness Road” sung, with full rock band accompaniment, by the Rev. Christine Coy-Fohr, when she was a 16 year-old member of the youth group at First Presbyterian Church in Owensboro, KY. The lyrics are based on Isaiah 35:1-10, which appears in the lectionary (Year A) as the Old Testament lesson for the third Sunday in Advent (AKA “Gaudete {“Rejoice!”] Sunday”). Unfortunately, despite a diligent effort, I couldn’t find the old tape, which I (re)discovered fairly recently. I did locate a very badly done home recording of me croaking out the song with one of my acoustic guitars, complete with a phone ringing in the background near the end.  But it turns out not to matter anyway; I can’t upload MP3s to this blog. I don’t have the proper plug-in.

So, I’ll just settle for sharing the lyrics with you. But that’s in a bit. The search for the tape and the little feeling of loss I experienced when I couldn’t find the rare recording (which if I truly cherished, I would have put in a readily accessible place) reminded me of another personal loss associated with Advent, greater by several orders of magnitude than misplacing music.

I mean the death of my father one year ago tomorrow.

So I’m grateful for the text of Isaiah 35:1-10, that talks about the desert blossoming and people being renewed and rejoicing, as sorrow and sighing flee away. Here are the prophet’s stirring words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

My own version is a rollicking piece of rock, beginning with a riff rather like one I heard years ago on some Elton John song. It’s fun to play, as I did yesterday, even for the umpteenth time, and sorrow flees away.

Maybe if you feel sadness and have experienced loss, you too can be lifted up as you read:

I’m gonna sing and shout for joy, walkin’ down the holiness road! Nothin’ can my hope destroy, walkin’ down the holiness road!

Walkin’ that holiness road! Walkin’ that holiness road!

Lame man (or one) gonna leap and dance! Walkin’ down the holiness road! Blind man (or one) gonna see at last! Walkin’ down the holiness road!

Walkin’ that holiness road, etc…

God will lead his people, walkin’ down that holiness road! Guide and feed his people, walkin’ down that holiness road.

Walkin’ that, etc.…

God will not desert me, walkin’ that holiness road. No one there to hurt me, walkin’ that holiness road.

Walkin’ that, etc.…

Have a blessed and joyful Sunday and week!

© 2011 Tom Cheatham; “Holiness Road,” words and music © 1995 Tom Cheatham

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

++++

“Competitive shopping turned violent at a Los Angeles–area Walmart when a woman fired pepper spray to keep other shoppers at bay. Police say 20 people suffered minor injuries from the spray and subsequent “rapid crowd movement.” Witnesses say they heard screams coming from a crowd of shoppers rushing for discounted Xboxes and Wiis” (see note 1).

“A Black Friday shopper who collapsed while shopping at a Target store in West Virginia went almost unnoticed as customers continued to hunt for bargain deals.

“Walter Vance, the 61-year-old pharmacist, who reportedly suffered from a prior heart condition, later died in hospital, reports MSNBC.

“Witnesses say some shoppers ignored and even walked over the man’s body as they continued to shop, reports the New York Daily News

“Friends and co-workers saddened to learn of his death, expressed outrage over the way he was treated by shoppers” (see note 2).

++++

Assaulting others for a game console? Stepping over a dying man? (At least some nurses shopping in Target assisted the man until paramedics arrived. Kudos to them for having a moral compass and being true to their oath as medical professionals.)

We hear these kinds of stories every year. And I’m sickened by them. How is hurting other people as you rush to get a deal a fit preparation to celebrate the birth of the One who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many? Answer: it’s not. People really don’t care about living like Jesus did, no matter how many Christmas carols they sing about “preparing him room.”

It’s because of the flawed or non-existent moral sense of shoppers and all of us in general that we need to pay more attention to the season of Advent. Not an easy calling. Nothing could more counter-cultural than to emphasize its focus on simplicity, humble repentance, and waiting (AKA deferred gratification) over excess, shameless self-promotion, and rushing into stores and toward Christmas Day itself.

Don’t expect much along those lines, though, from the dominant churches in this nation, namely, the evangelicals and fundamentalists. A radio host on a “Christian” radio station I tuned into while surfing the frequencies last Sunday gushed about how glad she was that we could now “legitimately” say “merry Christmas,” since it was after Thanksgiving. A Baptist church in a nearby town already has scheduled for tonight tours of live nativity scenes and a mock-up of the biblical Bethlehem. These kinds of Christians contribute to the culture’s fixation on rushing toward Christmas, instead of helping us to step back and ask questions about our consumption, our need to get and have, and our reluctance to repent.

But truth be told, the oldline/offline (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal…) and Catholic churches don’t do much better, even though we recognize Advent and hear texts on its Sundays about judgment and longing and changing our ways. We are urged to make the crooked straight and the mountains low. Yet we either have so little influence on the culture or we have been so co-opted by it or the pressure is so great to conform that our voices go unheeded. The cacophony set up by all the ads and horrible Christmas Musak and kids clamoring for their favorite toys and electronics is so loud, so harsh, so utterly crushing that even the strong preaching of John the Baptist is drowned out, not to mention the warnings of Jesus or the singing of Mary.

I truly despair for our nation and for its churches. But maybe as in days gone by, a few will be able to reset their moral direction by sighting on the “bright morning star” (Revelation 22:6) and lead the way to renewal. That would be the most wonderful Christmas present of all.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Note 1

http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2011/11/25/woman-pepper-sprays-shoppers.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_morning&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_morning&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet

Note 2

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/27/black-friday-target_n_1115372.html?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily%20Brief&utm_campaign=daily_brief

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:42).

…we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye… (1 Corinthians 15:51,52).

Two articles in my hometown paper caught my eye over Thanksgiving. One was from Lancaster, PA. A woman encountered a cow standing in the road. She was concerned that the animal might be hit by another motorist, so the woman tried to shoo Bessie off the highway. She got a head-butt down a hill for her troubles.

In New Jersey, a little girl was knocked down by deer during a 5K charity run. Apparently the animal was frightened and confused by all the noise of the event. The deer ran away, and fortunately the girl was not hurt.

Other than proving again the old saying about no good deed going unpunished, these stories remind me that anything can happen, at any time, for good or ill. Tragedy can strike, but so can grace touch us. All it takes is a “moment, the twinkling of an eye,” a nanosecond, to alter our lives maybe forever.

Advent is a time to reflect on and be prepared (as much as possible) for such uncertainty in life, to hear the words of Jesus that we do not know when our Lord will come, whether in death or to right the wrongs of history, be it our own or the whole planet’s.

When we got home from our Thanksgiving visit, we watched again Memoirs of a Geisha, a powerful film. One line said by “the Chairman” has stayed with me: “When life goes well, it’s a sudden gift.”

May you be given such a wonderful sudden gift this season.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

Advent means coming

Longing, waiting, watching, joy

Jesus comes today!

+++++++

The winter wears long

Wet, cold, dark, no end to it

O sun, come out soon!

++++++++

Sing to God, my soul!

Impossible dreams come true.

Let it be so, Lord.

(from Luke 1:46-55)

+++++++++

A harvest of joy

Waiting to be bundled, shared

No weeping in Zion!

(from Psalm 126)

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Please note: There will be no post next week. Have a blessed Christmas!

(O Sapientia)

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

pervading and permeating all creation,

you order all things with strength and gentleness:

Come now and teach us the way to salvation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Adonai)

O Adonai, Ruler of the house of Israel,

you appeared in the burning bush to Moses

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come with outstretched arm to save us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Radix Jesse)

O Root of Jesse, rising as a sign for all the peoples,

before you earthly rulers will keep silent,

and nations give you honor:

Come quickly to deliver us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Clavis David)

O Key of David, Scepter over the house of Israel,

you open and no one can close,

you close and no one can open:

Come to set free the prisoners

who live in darkness and the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Oriens)

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light,

Sun of justice:

Come, shine on those who live in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Rex Gentium)

O Ruler of the nations, Monarch for whom the people long,

you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity:

Come, save us all,

whom you formed out of clay.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Emmanuel)

 O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver,

desire of the nations and Savior of all:

Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Come, Lord Jesus.

         

            Silence

 

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises,

the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming

and looks forward with longing

to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to

receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever.   Amen.

 

 

Since at least the 8th century CE, the “O Antiphons” have been sung or chanted in liturgy in the Western Church during the Octave before Christmas (December 17-23). They may have been used as far back as the 5th or 6th century, when there is a reference to them in the writings of Boethius, a philosopher and poet. French Benedictines not so long after were reciting the prayers and then giving gifts to each other.

 

Those same monks arranged the antiphons in such a way that they formed an acrostic. Starting with the last title and taking the first letter of each in turn, they formed the Latin phrase ero cras (“tomorrow, I will come”): Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia. Their creative arrangement reminded them of the promise of Jesus’ advent (coming, parousia): “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). 

 

I love this litany! First, for its extreme age. In this time of disposable everything, we need truly ancient traditions that have been developed and shared and valued over the millennia, enriching the lives of countless numbers of believers. In reciting the O Antiphons, we are connected in a deep and enduring way with those who have gone before us.

 

Second, for its imagination. We become so lazy in our address to God and Jesus, preferring only a couple of titles like “Father” or “Lord.” But the Bible is full of wonderful terms that would take our worship and prayer to a new level, if we would but seek them out. The seven words (in Latin) used in the O Antiphons barely scratch the surface of what the Scriptures offer us as a resource for our relationship with our Lord.

 

Third, for its longing and passion. Can’t you feel the ache in these prayers? Surely in these days of economic crisis, unending and fruitless war, genocide, corruption, greed, fear, and on and on, we need the intervention of divine providence that these ancient lines call for. Particularly for those bound in whatever way—by debt, by addiction, by prejudice, by lust for power—these prayers plead for freedom and help. And for us all, in our deathly culture from which we cannot extricate ourselves, there is no other hope for breaking free from the tomb than our God’s swift coming.

 

You readers who worship in a liturgical church that observes Advent and follows the customs of the ages will most likely pray these prayers yourself this Sunday as part of the gathered community. If you do not have that opportunity, I encourage you to use them for personal devotions, ask your pastor to include them next year on the Sunday before Christmas or both.

 

Have a blessed Christmas, and be encouraged by these words “ero cras,” “tomorrow, I will come.”

 

© Tom Cheatham

 

Notes

 

The version of the O Antiphons I use here comes from Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

My source for history is Fr. William Saunders, “What are the ‘O Antiphons’?” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html