Posts Tagged 'enthronement psalm'

For Dec. 24, 2015: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 9:2-7

This early prophecy of Isaiah was supposed to motivate King Ahaz to have faith: the child foretold is most probably his son Hezekiah, who did indeed rule righteously in God’s sight. We read it as predicting the birth of Jesus the Messiah. May he hear these words of light, joy, liberation, and peace, and help bring them to pass.

The Response                                                             Psalm 96

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that was written in the sixth century before Christ, after Isaiah’s prophecy of the Son born to us and during the difficult days of the exile in Babylon. It praises the God of Israel as the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, before whom the very rocks and trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle                                                                  Titus 2:11-14

Isaiah poetically looked forward to the coming of a savior to rescue Israel. The letter of Titus, written several centuries later, looks backward and forward: Jesus has appeared to redeem all peoples, including us, and it is up to us to live the lives and do the good deeds that show we are his.

The Gospel                                                                  Luke 2:1-20

The gospel of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced to the lowly shepherds. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Further thoughts

Unsurprisingly, most of the hymns that we sing on Christmas Eve celebrate the Christ Child by name. One very famous hymn, however, does not: “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” This hymn began as a poem, “Peace on Earth,”[1] written by the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, D.D. for a Sunday school Christmas celebration in 1849 and published late that year.[2] The original poem has five stanzas; hymnals pretty universally print verses 1, 2, and 5 and typically drop either verse 3 (e.g. the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), or verse 4 (The Hymnal 1972). Here are verses 3 and 4 as Sears wrote them:

3.

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

4. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This poem, which has been called one of the earliest social-gospel hymns,[3] is very much a product of its contentious times. By the end of 1849, the Mexican-American War had been over for less than two years. The war added Mexico’s lands west of Texas to the U.S., sharpening the increasingly acrimonious national debate on allowing slavery in new territories seeking admission as states—including California. Californians overwhelmingly preferred “free state” status: beyond the fact that Mexico had forbidden slavery since 1829, some found slavery loathsome, and others seem to have believed that swinging a pickax in the goldfields was more degrading alongside a slave. Admitting California as a free state meant giving the free states a majority of two votes in the U.S. Senate, thus encouraging hopes of abolition and making the Civil War even more inevitable.

In addition to war and slavery, Sears may also have been motivated by concerns closer to home. The congregations he served as a Unitarian minister were a handful of miles from Lowell, MA, the so-called cradle of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. The “mill girls” or “factory girls” , most between the ages of 16 and 36, worked in Lowell’s groundbreaking textile mills. They labored an average of 73 hours per week, deafened by the racket of mill machinery and half-choked by lint in the air, at tasks that were simultaneously exhausting and mindless. In 1844 they formed the first women’s labor union to demand a ten-hour workday[4] —unsuccessfully: not until the 1870s did the Massachusetts legislature pass such a law.

165 years later, slavery as such is gone from the U.S., but its legacy in racism and discrimination persists; workplaces are undeniably safer than in the 1840s, but income inequality in the U.S. is greater than ever and climbing.[5] It is good to adore the infant Jesus at his birth—but it is also fitting to remember the birth of the infant Jesus–but it is also fitting to pause and remember with Titus that the kingdom of God is not yet fully established on Earth and that we ourselves have work to do to see that it is.

 

[1] ‪Nutter, Charles Sumner, Hymn Studies: An Illustrated and Annotated Edition of the Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 4th ed. (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1900), p. 80. http://books.google.com/books?id=UDLNEiK7KvkC&oe=UTF-8. Accessed 21 December 2014.

[2] Anderson, Douglas D., “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, 25 May 2012? http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/it_came_upon_the_midnight_clear.htm. Accessed 21 December 2014. Anderson’s site is a really excellent resource for Christmas hymns, carols, and poetry.

[3] Hawn, C. Michael, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,’” (n.d.), GBOD Equipping World-Changing Disciples, http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-it-came-upon-a-midnight-clear. Accessed 21 December 2014. Hawn is quoting Carlton Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal.

[4] Dublin, Thomas C. “Women, Work, and Protest In the Early Lowell Mills: ‘The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us’,” Labor History 16 (1975):99-116. Online at Whole Cloth: Discovering Science and Technology through American History, Smithsonian Institution, http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html. Consulted 22 December 2014.

[5] Quoctrung Bui, “40 Years of Income Inequality in America, in Graphs,” NPR Planet Money: Demography, 2 October 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/02/349863761/40-years-of-income-inequality-in-america-in-graphs. Consulted 22 December 2014.

For Oct. 19, 2014: Proper 24, Pentecost 19, Year A

The Reading             Isaiah 45:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah tell of the time when the people of Israel were already in exile in Babylon but their deliverance was imminent. The instrument of their deliverance, the anointed one whom the LORD calls by name and promises treasures and secret riches, is Cyrus—king of the decidedly pagan Persian empire.

The Response         Psalm 96:1-9

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that dates to roughly the same time as Isaiah 45. The psalmist calls on all peoples to sing to the LORD and declare the LORD’s glory. Verse 8 is familiar as one of the sentences that may be read in an Episcopal church as the Offertory begins.

The Epistle             1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the first written book of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church he founded in an important Roman city in Macedon, north of Greece, that he has had to leave suddenly. He begins this letter by commending the mostly gentile converts for their joy and perseverance in the faith.

The Gospel           Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 21:23-22:14 follows Jesus after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as he tells a series of parables that make the political and religious rulers squirm. To discredit this troublemaker, the Pharisees and the followers of Herod join forces and confront him with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome.

 

Further thoughts

“Politics makes strange bedfellows”, as writer and humorist Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1871, when private deal-making in smoke-filled back rooms birthed both shady laws and shining ones.

The strange bedfellows in Matthew are the Pharisees, upholders of Jewish racial and religious purity, and the Herodians, who are aligned with Rome via the figurehead Herod Antipas. Each group despises the other, but Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has both groups worried, so they work together to trap him. If Jesus calls Roman taxation lawful, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Jewish autonomy and much of the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on him; if he doesn’t, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Rome and the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on whatever the Roman legions leave of him. Jesus spurns the trap. The government that provides the coinage earns the tax, he indicates, as one of God’s multitude of tools for getting things done.

Isaiah, for his part, hails Cyrus of the Persians as not only God’s instrument but God’s anointed ruler over Israel—though Cyrus is neither Jewish nor of the house of David. And the Cyrus that Isaiah prophesies is pretty nearly the Cyrus of history: an overthrower of kings, to be sure, yet notorious for treating his vanquished opponents’ former subjects with mercy and generosity. Cyrus finds out what the Judeans need to restore Jerusalem; he helps them back on their feet to do God’s good work, and this constitutes real kingship.

And then there is Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and yet apostle to the gentiles. He commends the Thessalonians not for imitating him as Jews but for imitating him as followers of Christ and doers of God’s good work among their fellow gentiles.

What if doing the will of God means making less of differences and making more of listening and love?

For Dec. 25, 2013: Christmas Day (Christmas II)

The Reading            Isaiah 62:6-12

What astonishing news Isaiah gives us: Jerusalem restored to more than it ever was, and the fruit of their labors going to the people who have sweated for them, rather than to the oppressor. “You who remind the Lord” might be angels in heaven—but might not they also be us?

The Response            Psalm 97

Psalm 97 is one of a series of “enthronement psalms” that celebrate the Lord. It depicts the Lord as a God of mystery and power, to be feared and exalted, but also as a God before whom the righteous can rejoice.

The Epistle            Titus 3:4-7

In the first reading, Isaiah foretells the salvation of Jerusalem in terms of liberation from oppressors and abundance for those who have labored. As Titus tells it, however, God our Savior has done much more than that—not because we have done anything to earn it, but simply through God’s mercy.

The Gospel            Luke 2:1-20

The nativity narrative of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Ponderables

Psalm 97 describes a God of awe, making the mountains melt like wax and keeping track of all righteousness and unrighteousness. This is the very same God, according to Isaiah, whose preference is to promote equity by actively soliciting feedback from God’s people, and, according to Luke, the God whose way to save us from ourselves—which, as God and the writer to Titus know, we need—is to be born as one of the least of us.

Isn’t that staggeringly amazing?


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