One of the silver linings to sheltering in place during the Covid-19 pandemic has been re-establishing connection with old friends on social media … and, through them, nostalgia for places I used to call home. Kind of like Ebenezer Scrooge’s visions of Christmas Past — but without the chains and Marley’s Ghost.
So Sunday afternoon a new Facebook friend from my old home town of Norris, Tenn., shared a link to the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols at the University of the South in Sewanee. That evening, I logged on and watched it on the University’s website.
And memories came flooding back.
I hadn’t been to Sewanee’s festival in person, but I’ve spent a lot of time on campus, a reasonable facsimile of an English university improbably plopped down on the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga. As a teenager, I went to church camps nearby, and we’d go trooping through All Saint’s Chapel (pictured in the screenshot above), which looks more like an English cathedral than a university chapel. In later years, as I’ve written on this blog, Debi and I would stop at Sewanee to check out the university bookstore on our way to visit family in Atlanta.
I was up for an Advent festival, anyway. The acoustics in All Saint’s, where the festival is held, are marvelous. And some of my most cherished memories are of Christmas Eve listening with my family to LPs of the Festival of Lessons and Carols at Cambridge after we came home from services at St. Francis’ Episcopal Church in Norris.
So when the University put this year’s Festival of Lessons and Carols up on the internet. it was another silver lining to this time of pandemic.
“While the global pandemic makes it impossible for us to gather this year in All Saints’ Chapel,” explains the blurb on Sewanee’s YouTube channel, “we created this special video version of Lessons and Carols—telling the Christmas story of comfort, hope, and God dwelling with us, against the backdrop of a semester like no other at Sewanee.”
For me at least, it was all of that — comfort, hope and a sense of the indwelling of God. But after I got to thinking about one of the readings, it was a bit of a kick in the pants, too.
The reading was a familiar passage from Isaiah — the one that begins with “Comfort, comfort ye my people …” and goes on to prophesy “the voice of one that crieth in the desert” — or wilderness in the language of the King James Version and Handel’s Messiah. It brings back memories of singing Messiah in college as well as the old LPs we listened to at home on Christmas Eve.
(The reading begins at 12:11 in the video, narrated by Vice-Chancellor’s Office staff.)
It was followed by an eight-person ensemble of University Choir members, masked, socially distanced and alone in the transept of All Saint’s, singing an arrangement of Lutheran hymn-writer Johann Olearius’ metrical paraphrase of Isaiah set to the chorale melody FREU DICH SEHR. The melody was originally composed by Calvinist metrical psalmist Louis Bourgeois, who also wrote the melody we know in English as “Praise God from whom all blessing flow.” It’s a fine piece of music.
(It begins at 14:17, and it’s worth a listen. The singing is flawless, and the acoustics in All Saint’s are magnificant.)
So we had one of my favorite passages from the bible coupled with one of my favorite chorales. (If you’re feeling really, really wonkish, I’ve written about it in a hymnody blog.) I haven’t engaged enough with scripture lately, so I decided to see what would happen if I meditated, or prayed, on the passage using a technique adapted from lectio divina.
What happened, not to put too fine a point on it, was that kick in the pants I mentioned.
When I do lectio, I like to follow a simplified version that Fr. James Martin, editor-in-chief of the Jesuit magazine America, summarizes in four steps: Read, think, pray and act. It always leads me someplace I didn’t expect to go. This time it led me from nostalgia to thinking OK, it’s nice to be comforted, saith the Lord, but it’s also nice to do something about it. To act. “Finally,” says Fr. Martin, “you act.”
So here goes.
Read. The passage from Isaiah (40:1-11) was also Sunday’s pericope or lectionary reading for Advent II. As a jumping off point, I’ll quote first from Sewanee’s festival program, which is available on the University’s website:
Comfort, comfort ye my people,
speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem
of the peace that waits for them;
tell her that her sins I cover,
and her warfare now is over.
Comfort, comfort ye … Certainly it’s comforting to feel nostalgia for Christmases past, and just as certainly it’s especially comforting in this year of pandemic. Debi and I had the tree and lights up this year before Thanksgiving. We felt like we needed it. Felt like it? No, we flat needed it.
But there’s a little whiff of Fr. Martin’s admonition in the back of my mind. Finally, you act. It’s nice to read scripture and meditate, but whaddaya gonna do about it? Speak ye to Jerusalem?
And, as if to answer the question, Isaiah segues to that passage we interpret in the Christian churches as a prophesy of John the Baptist:
Hark, the voice of one that crieth
in the desert far and near,
calling us to new repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
To further answer Fr. Martin’s question, I turn to Isaiah (in the New Revised Standard Version), which elaborates:
A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
Another reminder, as if any were needed, of how fragile our lives are in this time of pandemic, failed leadership, political polarization and frayed relationships. The grass withers and the flowers fall. Life is fragile, especially perhaps now, but the word of God endures. And this passage is followed by:
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem
This is all so familiar, and I’m back in my memories, a college sophomore in Michigan singing Handel’s Messiah,” in a college-and-community chorus that was open without audition to everyone (including a mail carrier who joined us in uniform), joining in after the solo “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” our voices swelling as we continued, “… arise, say unto the cities of Judah, / behold your God! behold!”
So as I watch and meditate on the Advent festival in Sewanee, I’m drawn back to memories. Why? What do they mean? There must be a message in this somewhere.
In the meantime, the text from Isaiah shines through in the music as I listen. As comforting as all the memories are, I’ve got to sit down sometime and read Isaiah — I decide to order a commentary from Amazon.com (since I’m no longer visiting the Sewanee bookstore). And the words of the prophet shine through Olearius’ 16th-century metrical paraphrase and Catherine Winkworth’s Victorian English translation:
Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain:
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign
And in this last verse, soaring above the straightforward harmonies of Bourgeois’ Calvinist psalm tone I’m swept away by one of those etherial soprano descants I remember so well from growing up in the Episcopal church. Backed now by the world-class pipe organ at All Saint’s, the singers conclude:
For the glory of the Lord
Now o’er earth is shed abroad;
and all flesh shall see the token
that the word is never broken.
There’s a lot here to think about, between Isaiah, the pandemic, my memories and the music. And my nagging sense that whatever comfort I draw from it all should be spurring me to action — some kind of action. A voice says, “Cry out.” / And I said, “What shall I cry?”
Think. The next step in Fr. Martin’s take on lectio divina. “What is God saying to me through the text? At this point, you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you through this passage,” he says. “Often,” he adds helpfully, “it might connect with something in your life.”
One thing I’m pretty sure God is saying to me through this experience of words and music: I’d better follow through on my intention to order a good commentary and read the book of Isaiah.
I know Isaiah is central to what we call the Old Testament, and I know that Sean Freyne of University College Dublin argues it was central to what Jesus actually preached in Galilee. “There’s a sense of the universal in Isaiah,” Freyne once told Hershel Shanks of Biblical Archaeology Review. And Jesus of Nazareth, he added, would have seen his mission was to “bring light to the [gentile] nations as well as restore Israel.” Freyne says Jesus and John the Baptist both preached judgment and apocalypse, but Jesus was more attuned to the here and now.
“It’s not a vision of God coming in thunder and lightning,” he told Shanks. “God is in the world already.” In spiritual direction, I have learned that for subtle reasons dealing with my belief in incarnation, God speaks most clearly to me through the historical Jesus. So there’s plenty here to study.
And I’d better get cracking on Isaiah.
In the meantime, there’s that nagging feeling I got watching the Festival of Lessons and Carols that there’s something else I ought to be doing. Speak ye to Jerusalem / of the peace that waits for them.
Pray. This one can be short and simple. “What,” asks Fr. Martin, “do I want to say to God about the text?” That’s easy. The prophet Isaiah said it for me:
A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
I can’t improve on that.
Act. “Finally,” says Fr. Martin, “you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.” Well, a couple of things are clear to me. One is that whatever action I envision in this Advent season, it’s going to involve writing. That’s what I do best. And there’s plenty to write about.
What I need to do is to plant my ass in a chair and write it.
A footnote. Normally the Advent festival is a gala occasion, and the service in All Saint’s is magnificant. Here, for the sake of comparison, is a trailer that was shot during the Festival of Lessons and Carols in 2014.
[Published Dec. 14, 2020]