Something Missing in the Old Year,
Resurrected in the New
I am feeling better now. My soul now magnifies all that is holy. I received on the first day of the new year messages that lifted my spirit and rejuvenated my resolve. Those messages have altered the message that I had planned for you today.
First, let me share with you why those messages were so important. Something was missing for me during the Christmas Season. It did not bring its usual sheen upon my common living. It was not the bright star illumining the darkness of the days. I struggled to name what was missing. What was missing slowly emerged in my thinking and soul.
When I was a member of the steering committee of Religious Witness with Homeless People under the leadership of the incomparable Sister Bernie Galvin, we gathered for a candlelight vigil at the end of each year. At this powerful and needed service, we remembered people without enclosed shelter who had died on the streets of San Francisco, one of the richest cin the world. The vigil was always a time of deep reflection and connection. Recently, it has been sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Fellowship Church members Steve Leeds and Paula Guillory have also attended these gatherings. With candles burning the names and ages of those who perished are read. A moment of silence is observed for each person.
Through this, I have always been reminded that each person was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s son. I am reminded that each person’s life was intertwined with the lives of others, that no one is a complete recluse, that no one is an island standing alone, that there is a void created by each person’s death. Each person’s life is tied to my own. The vigil has also been a time of recommitment to the struggle for a just, compassionate society. For I am aware that these deaths are due to economic and political policies that continue to create and sustain poverty. I know that we as a nation have the resources to end poverty, but not the political or moral will.
The words of Fellowship Church member Leona Sansom come to me . . .
Let Christmas come
to those who lives are feckless
and have lost the desire to live,
to the imprisoned who long for freedom
when there is no freedom in sight,
to the many shelterless who roam
our richly paved city streets
seeking an acceptable life style,
to the beggars who hold out their dingy hands
as we pass them by with averted eyes,
and to those whose days are spent seeking food,
Let Christmas come to the lost and the hungry
. . .
I believe there was a virtual vigil this past year sponsored by the Interfaith Council that I could not attend. One missing component depriving the season of its usual power was the absence of this annual connecting my life to the lives of those that ended because of the greed and callousness of the nation. The vigil calls me to my best self, the self that dictates that I must do something to bend the will of the nation toward justice. It has always been deeply spiritual.
My soul also felt a sense of emptiness since there was no national service of lamentation for the nearly 2 million people worldwide, including 340 million in the United States, who died from COVID-19. Consequently, we, the people of this nation, were denied processing the pain publicly. Such processing can lead to the releasing of new social imagination according to Dr. Walter Brueggemann.
Surely, this is what happened during the civil rights movement which empowered disenfranchised citizens to claim a seat at the welcome table. Rose Parks critiqued the dominant ideology by sitting down and refusing to give up her seat on a bus. She emphatically demonstrated that she would no longer abide by unjust regulations that undercut her God given essence as a child of God. When the Montgomery Black community, appalled by her arrest, gathered, it publicly processed the pain that was so ever-present, pain that so many had personally experienced in so many ways and walks of life. That public processing of pain led to the release of new social imagination that said there were alternatives and that they were pledging with all the energy and resources that they could claim to living into the alternatives. With this conviction they committed themselves to bringing about a new order in Montgomery, Alabama. This spirit became contagious. People throughout the South and elsewhere marched toward Beloved Community, the kin-dom of God on earth.
I believe that one of the reasons for not having a national day of mourning is that political powers cannot control what might break out. The nation experienced some of this unpredictability with the protests—public processing of pain—around the constant murdering of Black people by policing forces who theoretically are “peace” officers.
Energy for this release of new social imagination can come from songs. Yet, some of the most powerful Christmas songs that advocate the end of oppression have been robbed of their critique of the dominant, oppressive ideology. Powerful words have been replaced; verses deleted. This too was a reason that the season lacked inspiration and power for me.
How beautiful is the song, O Holy Night! This Christmas, I only found a few versions that even mention that he, Jesus, would break chains of oppression. Fewer still stated that the slave is “our” brother/sister. The word slave has been changed to something else in some versions. It was refreshing to hear the version sung by Dionne Warwick which carries some of the critique of the dominant ideology that was in the original version.
Here are the words from the original English translation by John Sullivan Dwight, Unitarian minister.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining, It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born; O night divine, O night, O night Divine. Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming, With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand. So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming, Here come the wise men from the Orient land. The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger; In all our trials born to be our friend. He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger, Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend! Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name. Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim. His power and glory evermore proclaim.
The third stanza was used intentionally and often by the abolitionists. Does it not have revolutionary connotations and power even in these days if we could only hear it clearly again and again during the Christmas Season?
It is even more difficult to find a version of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear that contains the third and fourth stanzas.
It was composed by Unitarian minister Edmund Sears who was greatly impacted by the United States war with Mexico. The song challenged what he saw as the sin, strife, darkness of the world which contradicted the Christmas message. He did not keep the focus on the baby born in Bethlehem, however. Rather he moved purposefully to address his contemporary society. Many hymnals omit the third and/or fourth stanza. Can you understand why?
1. It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold: "Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, From heaven's all-gracious King." The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.
2. Still through the cloven skies they come, With peaceful wings unfurled, And still their heavenly music floats O'er all the weary world; Above its sad and lowly plains, They bend on hovering wing, And ever o'er its babel sounds The blessed angels sing.
3. Yet 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!
5. For lo!, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever-circling years Comes round the age of gold When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And the whole world give back the song Which now the angels sing.
Think of what it would mean if we and a significant number of others could embrace these often-deleted words and incarnate them in our living. What if as people encountered us, they would encounter these worlds living in us?
Not hearing these word and not experiencing public processing of loss and pain left me without the inspiration that normally comes with Christmas.
But, what were those messages that helped me to hear again the angels sing?
The first was the following message printed in the San Francisco Chronicle New Year’s Day.
Biden plans tribute for virus victims
President-elect Joe Biden is planning a lighting ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to honor those killed by the coronavirus the day before he is sworn into office on January 20.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee said Thursday that it would hold the event the evening of January 19, calling it the “First-ever lighting around the Reflecting Pool to memorialize American lives lost.” It is also inviting communities around the country to join Washington in lighting up buildings and ringing church bells at 5:30 p.m. in “a national moment of unity and peace.”
Another message that uplifted me was contained in an email from Rev. P Kofi Baah-Arhin, ordained by Fellowship Church.
The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seems as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late and when they came, lasted only a brief moment ...The drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed. The year had gone mad. When the rains finally returned, they fell as they had never fallen before. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. That year, the harvest was sad, like a funeral and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself. Okonkwo remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life. It always surprised him when he thought about it later that he did not sink under the load of despair. He knew he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion. "Since I survived that year," he always said, "I shall survive anything."
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Our sending forth video was sent to me by Fellowship Church member, Josefina Gabuya.