Most of us begin by thinking the world can make us happy. But if we reach maturity, both spiritual and emotional, we realize that we were made for something higher, something more akin to our hearts truest longings. The body gets the most from this world, but our soul needs something else, someone else—and that someone is God. Without God, our hearts are restless and unsatisfied. Sadly, many try to bury this longing with more and more of the world. In the end, it does not work. We need God, our heart’s truest longing and the fulfillment of all our desires.
John Lewis is a chain of English department stores. Each year, they produce a great Christmas commercial. In this 2014 commercial, a little penguin teaches us the lesson of our heart’s truer longings and the inability of the world to satisfy us. The surprise ending of the commercial is that the lesson is in us, not the penguin.
I have noted before on this blog that one of the trends in modern liturgy is the shift of focus from God to “the assembly.” Too much of liturgy today is anthropocentric.
Back in the 1990’s, in his book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day observed that modern liturgy often amounts to “the aware, gathered community, celebrating itself.” Many songs today go on at great length about how we are gathered, we are the flock, we are God’s song, etc. When God is mentioned it is more in relation to us, rather than the reverse. He is all about us, and this seems to please us greatly.
The emphasis has shifted too far in this self-centered direction. If in the past the people were something of an afterthought or were reduced to spectators (as some detractors of the older forms say), now it seems that we are the excessive focus. If something doesn’t “speak to the people” it must either be ditched or dumbed-down.
Even our architecture has given God the boot. Circular and fan shaped churches began to dominate after 1950. The tabernacle was relegated to the side; altars became largely devoid of candles or a cross, and it became almost an insult for the priest-celebrant not to “face the people.” Seeing and interacting with one another became the goal. God was invited, too, but His role seemed more to affirm what we were doing and to be pleased with us; or so we sang, on and on and on. Surely God was happy when we were happy!
I exaggerate, but only a little.
Several years ago, I was fascinated to read of similar concerns in an unlikely place. It was an article in Baptist News in which Baptist minister J. Daniel Day expressed consternation with the state of Protestant worship. In effect, he argued that it is barely worship at all. Day is a retired senior professor of Christian preaching and worship at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C. and is the author of the book Seeking the Face of God: Evangelical Worship Reconceived. Here are some excerpts from his remarks in the article at Baptist News, shown in bold, black italics, followed by my comments in red text. The full article is available here: Reviving Worship.
“Worship can be facilitated and used around any kind of style,” says Day, a former pastor of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. The music and sanctuary decorations can be tailored to fit the tastes of the congregation. “But the question becomes … ‘where’s the beef?’” By that, Day says he means the object of worship, which should be God. But over the centuries, the purpose of worship in many evangelical churches has been to attract and evangelize new members.
How perfectly and simply stated! The worship of God has become the secondary focus. People are certainly important, as is evangelization, but worship is more important; it is the first and chief work of the Church. The worship of God does not demote man; it elevates him. Scripture says that we have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:12). In other words, we were made to praise God, and in this worship, we are fulfilled; we reach our highest dignity and discover our true self in Him. God is not our competitor; He does not steal the stage. Worshiping Him is not a distraction nor is it in opposition to the assembly.
Further, making the liturgy more about evangelization than worship (where it too easily devolves into entertainment designed to draw numbers) belies the experience of the early Church. In the early days, one did not gain admittance into the liturgy, into the celebration of the mysteries, until after baptism. Evangelization was accomplished through the witness of changed and holy lives in combination with preaching and witness. The goal was to gain admittance to the sacred liturgy so as to worship and encounter God and be transformed by that encounter. If worship “evangelized,” it was instead a deepening of faith already confessed. The deal had already been sealed and the liturgy served to deepen and further immerse a person into the life of God and His Body, the Church.
Another major shift away from historic Christian worship came even earlier, he added. “The whole emphasis coming out of the Reformation was to convert worship into an educational experience,” Day said. “So you had these didactic, Calvinist lectures that became the models for today’s teaching sermons that go on for 45 minutes to an hour.” At that point, churches ceased being places of worship. “The sanctuary becomes a lecture hall.”
Indeed. And while I support Catholics learning to “tolerate” longer sermons, we ought not to lose our way. Homilies in Catholic parishes should teach more than they do, especially with the demise of Catholic Schools and family life in general.
However, the Mass is fundamentally an act of worship directed to the Father. Christ, the head of the Body and high priest, and we, the members of His Body, turn to the Father at the high point of the Mass (the Eucharistic prayer) and worship Him. Head and members worship the Father together.
This is why it is misleading for the priest to face the people during the Eucharistic prayer. Too often the impression is that the prayer is being read to the people. Not only is the priest facing them, but often priests, by their tone of voice and eye contact, give the impression that they are in fact talking to the people. Heaven forfend that the priest lower his voice such that someone in the back couldn’t hear the words or that he pray the canon in Latin. We must remember that the prayer is directed to God the Father, who is neither hard of hearing nor ignorant of Latin. While the vernacular has its advantages and helps the faithful to unite heartfully to the action, it is not a disaster if the priest is less-than-fully-audible or prays in a language other than that which the faithful understand well.
The Liturgy of the Word is rightly directed toward the people, yet it is also marked with worship; it is not just readings and instruction. The psalm (gradual) and the alleluia (tract) are worshipful responses of the assembly to what has been proclaimed, and after the homily, the creed and/or prayers also invite the worship of prayer.
So, yes, the liturgy is more than a bible study or a lecture.
Or [beyond a lecture hall, churches] become entertainment centers, Day says, where worship is about “being impressed by the magnificence of the place, the costumes and the jumbo screens.”
When the main goal becomes keeping people happy so they will come back, things really start to go off the rails. People are fickle; our culture is obsessed with the latest trends (particularly in the U.S.). We seem to need more and more exotic things in order to be impressed. A lot of the megachurches note that although people come once or a few times, they don’t often keep coming for long. There is only so much you can do when you’re surrounded by an entertainment culture.
Eventually, those who have been attracted by trendy notions get bored, figuratively saying, “Peel me a grape.” When fresh ideas aren’t forthcoming, the bored move on to the next phenomenon or the latest star preacher. Many of them end up dropping out of religion entirely, although some return to the Catholic parishes they left for greener pastures.
Entertainment-based churches eventually either run out of ideas or lose out to trendier churches with bigger budgets. Most of the megachurches of the 1990s here in Washington, D.C. are now closed; newer, bigger “centers” and “campuses” have opened to cater to the latest notions. These are quite difficult to maintain financially and will likely close as well.
Again, the central point of liturgy is not to impress or entertain human beings; it is to worship God. Even the supposed praise songs of many such churches look and sound more like entertainment. Some of the lyrics are actually not bad in terms of content, but many are riddled with catchphrases.
In the Catholic Church, too, a lot of contemporary liturgical trends seem to have “the people” in mind more so than God. He’s invited, too, but pleasing the people is more the point. Otherwise, why is trendy liturgy (especially music) such an issue? Does God change and need new forms? Does He get bored with the older hymns and chants? No! All of this trendiness is more about us.
To be fair, this problem is not new. The big orchestral masses of the Baroque period were quite the item back then. Eventually, they were criticized for trying to be more like opera, trying to impress donors rather than to be suitable for the worship of God. Even early polyphony got so artsy that the Church had to warn composers that the text being sung was more important than the musical artistry designed to impress the people.
Every now and again, the Church needs to throw a penalty flag on the field and say, “Back to God!” This is surely one of those times in both Catholic and Protestant settings, which are so powerfully influenced by our anthropocentric, consumer-focused culture.
A growing number of scholars from a variety of traditions are exploring the value ancient approaches to worship can have in modern times, he adds. One is to provide a sense of authenticity and rootedness in the history and practice of the ancient church.
Sadly, I doubt that our Baptist brethren will look to Catholic antiquity. But hey, it’s a start! It never hurts to value ancient approaches. Those who look to these sources may well discover how Catholic the early Church was. Let us pray. God bless the good Reverend J. Daniel Day in his search and for his admonitions to us all!
Not all contemporary Christian music is bad. In fact, I like a some of it quite well (e.g., “Still,” “You Never Let Go,” “Shout to the Lord”). But a good portion of it is poor. Here’s an amusing video that pokes fun at it:
During Advent, we read quite a bit from the Prophet Isaiah. Therefore, for my own meditation and yours, I offer the following reflection on Isaiah, the man and his message. Each of the issues with which he dealt is still with us, even though we live in a far more secular world than he could have imagined. Let’s consider key elements of his life, his struggle, and his message.
Isaiah was born in 760 B.C. He is further identified as the son of Amoz (Isaiah 1:1). His name in Hebrew (Yeshayahu) means “Yah[weh] is salvation.” Isaiah lived this name well, insisting that Judah’s kings and people trust only in God, make no alliances with foreign nations, and refuse to fear anyone but God.
Isaiah lived in the terrible period following the great severing of the northern kingdom of Israel (with its ten tribes) from the southern kingdom of Judah. In the period prior to Isaiah’s birth, the northern kingdom had known almost nothing but godless kings. Idolatry had begun there from the start, when the first king, Jeroboam, erected golden calves (of all things!) in two northern cities and strove to dissuade northern Jews from going south to Jerusalem (in Judah) to worship. Other ugly moments in the north featured King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, who advanced the worship of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal, and who persecuted Elijah and the few others who sought to stay true to the faith of Abraham.
By the time Isaiah began his ministry (742 B.C.), the division was some 200 years old. Though living in Judah to the south, Isaiah both prophesied doom for the north and warned the kings of the south to rebuke wickedness and fears and to form no foreign alliances against the growing menaces to the north (Israel) and the east (Assyria). In this passage, he warned of northern destruction: In a single day the Lord will destroy both the head and the tail … The leaders of Israel are the head, and the lying prophets are the tail (Is 9:14-15). But his own Judah remained the focus of his concern and warnings.
Isaiah’s mission and ministry in Judah spanned four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is likely that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, which gave him both access and influence. Isaiah’s eloquence and influence also suggest that he received a royal education; little else is known of him personally.
Although the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah describe the wickedness of the people of Judah and the need for their repentance and his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic call seems to have begun in 742 B.C., “the year King Uzziah died,” and is described in Chapter 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:1–8).
While God accepts Isaiah’s offer, He warns that Isaiah’s message will be resisted. Isaiah asks, sadly,
“How long, O Lord?” And he said, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned” (Is 6:11–13).
Sure enough, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah describe a fiercely stubborn resistance to Isaiah’s calls. However, the prophesied destruction of the south would not occur until 587 B.C., long into the future, due in part to some limited success Isaiah had in working with King Hezekiah at a critical moment.
The winds of war were blowing. Assyria was expanding and the ominous clouds of its destructive conquest were moving westward. Israel to the north joined in a coalition to fight Assyria and tried to strong-arm Judah to join, threatening invasion and overthrow of King Ahaz if there was no agreement. Let’s just say that Ahaz was anxious, and all of Judah with him—threats to the north, threats to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west. There was no real escape.
God dispatches Isaiah to Ahaz with the following message:
… Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands … [who have] devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass (Is 7:4–7).
In other words, trust God. Make no alliances and do not give in to your fears. Stand your ground! God offers Ahaz a sign that a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, Immanuel (God is with us). But Ahaz cops a falsely pious attitude, talking about not putting God to the test. Yet it is Ahaz who fails the test. Caving in, he sends tribute to Assyria and offers to become a vassal state.
In the end, this frees Assyria to concentrate on destroying Israel to the north. And while it can be argued that Israel’s wickedness brought her destruction, Ahaz helped seal the fate of fellow Jews in the north through his fearful and self-serving political calculations. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and the survivors were carried off into exile. It was farewell to the Ten Lost Tribes. Only Judah and the Levites in the south remained intact.
Though Judah was spared, the relief from threatening Assyriawas to be temporary. Meanwhile, Ahaz’s son Hezekiah became king (ruling from 715-687 B.C.). Hezekiah was a better king: more faithful, more trusting, and thus less fearful. He rid Judah of any elements of Canaanite religious practice and by 705 B.C. had courageously broken free of the alliance with Assyria. He fortified Jerusalem (and his faith) against the backlash that was sure to come from Assyria.
Sure enough, in 701 B.C., Assyria came to collect past-due tribute and to assert who was boss. Jerusalem was surrounded with troops and her fate seemed sealed. But Isaiah summoned Hezekiah and Judah to courage:
“Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow here, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (Is 37:33–36).
The Assyrian survivors left and returned by the way they had come. Their king, Sennacherib, returned home and was killed by his own sons.
A fear rebuked brought victory to Judah.Now maybe people would listen to Isaiah and trust God rather than foreign alliances! Well, not so fast. Hezekiah, who had been ill but miraculously recovered, started to get awfully friendly with the Babylonians, who were then emerging as a power to the east. Faith and trust are surely difficult things, especially for a king.
Because it looked like another alliance was being formed with a pagan state, Isaiah warned,
“Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days” (Is 39:5–8).
Hezekiah’s selfish response reminds me of an old saying of my father’s: “People disappoint.” Alliances and dalliances with foreign lands and a corresponding lack of trust in God would continue to plague Judah despite miracles against Assyria.
We know little of Isaiah’s final demise. According to an extra-biblical tradition (and hinted at in Hebrews 11:37), he died by being sawed in half by Hezekiah’s unfaithful son, Manasseh. If the tradition is true, Manasseh answered to God for Isaiah’s murder.
Lessons from Isaiah:
Despite often disappointing results, Isaiah never gave up. God told him to prophesy and so he did. Isaiah lived what he preached. He feared God, not man. He never thought twice about going up to kings and declaring to their faces, “Thus saith the Lord!” Isaiah was willing to rebuke and encourage people regardless of their standing.
In the end, Isaiah’s message is remarkably clear: Do not fear! Clearly, fear leads all of us to a lot of foolish decisions. It is through fear that the devil holds us in bondage (Heb 2:15). The solution to fear is trust in God. And even if we were to be killed, we would still win, for the martyr’s crown would await us. Do not fear!
Why were foreign alliances so troubling to Isaiah? First of all, they manifested a lack of trust in the Lord with the following thinking: “Can God really save us? Maybe, but just in case He doesn’t come through, let’s make sure we have a plan B.” Hmm … not much faith there! But second (and related) the secular states of today were unknown at that time. People and nations were deeply religious. Alliances with foreign lands meant marriages to foreign queens as well as adopting the false religions of those nations and queens. Can someone say, “Jezebel”? Or how about Solomon and his 1000 wives and all their foreign gods? It was his folly that led to a divided Jewish nation and that introduced the wicked practices of the Baals and other Canaanite atrocities. These alliances manifested a lack of trust in God and introduced, inevitably, the adultery of “sleeping with” other gods.
An admonition is in order for us as well. As a Church, we ought to be wary of too many entanglements or partnerships with our increasingly hostile secular government. Many strings are attached to the federal and state monies we accept to serve the poor, give tuition assistance, etc. Compromises are increasingly demanded of us. Sadly, some sectors of the Church (especially certain universities) are caving in to the power and slavery of money and are compromising on same-sex unions and providing contraception (and even abortifacients) to their employees through health care plans. Large blocks of federal money are currently administered by Catholic charitable organizations. These government entanglements increasingly demand compromises of us and it is only going to get worse. Beware! We need to shift back to using our own monies to care for the poor. We need to be willing to say no to funding that comes with the demand to make compromises we cannot make. Serving the poor is important, but we cannot let even that become an idol. And frankly, if we are using mostly government money, can we really say that we are serving the poor? Are we not, rather, merely administering a government program? The Pope recently warned that the Church is not merely an NGO (non-governmental organization, voluntary and not-for-profit).
Individual Catholics would also do well to be more hesitant to form political alliances. Too often, we allow political views to overrule our faith. Catholics need to be Catholics first, and be willing to denounce sin and evil no matter who perpetrates it or promotes it.
Alliances are often dangerous things. Too easily do we slip into adultery with the world. Beware! Compromise is ugly; adultery is a disgraceful betrayal of the Lord, whom we should fear and love.
The Second Sunday of Advent usually features the ministry of St. John the Baptist. He was the prophet who fulfilled the Office of Elijah, of whom it was said, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:4–6).
St. John was a prophet who prepared the people of his time for the coming of Jesus by summoning them to repentance and opening them to the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.
The coming of Jesus for which St. John prepared them has, of course, now been fulfilled. For us who ponder St. John’s office today, the coming of Christ for which we must be ready is His Second Coming.
Whom does “John the Baptist” represent for us? Surely it is the Church, which Christ founded to prepare people and draw them from darkness into light. We experience the Church, not as an abstraction, but in our local bishop, priests, and deacons, as well as in our parents and catechists. Through all of them the Church fulfills her mission to be a prophet that prepares us.
Furthermore, you are also called to be a prophet who prepares others for the coming of Christ as Judge. You do not work independently of the Church (at least you’d better not!); rather, the Church works through you.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of our prophetic office in the following way:
[The baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God (CCC #1270).
We have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets who prepare others for Judgment Day.
How can we do this effectively? What are the some of the essential ingredients of a prophet who prepares others? The ministry of St. John the Baptist provides four:
Poise – I use poise here in its older sense, referring to balance. The text says, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Note that John says two things: He first says, “Repent” and then adds, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
This is a balance that must be gotten right. The preacher and prophet must speak frankly of sin and call people to repentance, but he must also speak of the grace available to conquer that sin and point out the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is open and available. John the Baptist was willing and able to declare the reality of sin and the necessity of repenting of it, but he was also able to declare the availability of the Kingdom, wherein one is able to find the grace to overcome sin.
Too many preachers, catechists, and even parents lack this proper balance. Some would say that in the past sermons were all fire and brimstone; today, it’s more often the steady diet of “God is love” with little reference to the need for repentance. This is one of the reasons that our Churches have emptied over the past 40–50 years.
This is because the good news only has relevance and significance if the bad news is understood. If you don’t know the bad news, then the good news is no news. To illustrate, suppose you see a headline announcing a cure for a deadly disease. If you’ve never heard of this disease, the article will probably be of only passing interest, but if you or a loved one has the disease, you would probably read the article very carefully. Because you know in a personal way the bad news of the disease, the good news of the cure means a great deal to you.
It is the same with the Kingdom. We have to know the bad news of sin in a very personal and profound way to fully appreciate the good news of salvation. In the Church we have been soft-pedaling the bad news, and so the good news seems irrelevant to many people; the medicine of the cure seems pointless. Why pray, receive sacraments, or read Scripture if everything is just fine? Why bother going to Mass? Our Churches have emptied in part due to a lack of proper balance between repenting and believing that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
In order to be powerful and effective prophets, we must speak frankly about the reality of sin and balance it with the joyful announcement of the Kingdom, with its grace and mercy now available. Prophecy must have the right balance.
St. John the Baptist didn’t sugarcoat things. He was explicit: we need to repent, or else. He spoke of a coming day of wrath and judgment for those who did not do so. He spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree, of fiery judgment and unquenchable fire. He was not afraid to call the self-righteous “vipers,” equating their pride with that of the ancient serpent.
Too many people today are afraid to speak like this and thus lack the balance necessary to be true, preparing prophets. St. John joyfully announced the breaking in of the Kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah, but he spoke of repentance as the door of access. Do we have this balance, or do we preach mercy without repentance?
Product – The text says, At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
Here is the desired product of powerful prophecy: repentance unto salvation for all who believe. Preparing prophets do not seek merely to scare people; they seek to prepare them. To repent, to come to a new mind and heart by God’s grace, is to be prepared. This is the central work of the prophet who prepares: repentance unto salvation.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this aspect of prophecy and preaching. He is aware that he grieved some of them with his strong rebuke of the community (cf 1 Cor 5), but he is glad that it produced a godly sorrow, which in turn produced repentance and holiness. St. Paul also distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done …. By all this we are encouraged (2 Cor 7:8–13).
An old priest once told me, “Never think you have preached well unless the line to the confessional is long.” Good preaching, among other things, produces repentance unto salvation. It may cause some to be angry or sad, but proper prophecy will produce a godly sorrow such that anger and sadness give way to gladness. The expected product of proper preaching is repentance unto salvation.
Purity– The text says, When [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John the Baptist was not afraid of people’s opinions. He would not compromise his message based on his audience. The credentials of the temple leaders did not impress him. The status of the Jews as the chosen people did not cause him to soften his message. John had no fear of human opinion and felt no need to ingratiate himself to others, especially the rich and powerful.
Because of this, John the Baptist’s preaching was pure. He did not compromise the message out of fear or a need to flatter others. He spoke boldly, plainly, and with love, desiring the ultimate salvation of all. If that called for strong medicine, he was willing to dispense it.
The ancient martyrs went to their deaths proclaiming Christ, yet many of us today are afraid of someone raising his eyebrows at us. Fear is a great enemy of powerful prophecy, for it causes many to remain silent when they should speak. The fear of what other people might think causes many to compromise the truth and even sin against it. We must let go of this kind of fear if our prophecy is to have the purity necessary to achieve the goal.
Person – The text says, I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John’s disciples and his audiences were fascinated by him, drawn in by his charisma. They wanted to know more about him, but instead John talked about Jesus. That was his message: Jesus, not me. If we are going to be powerful prophets, our message must be about Jesus, not about us and what we think. We are not out to win an argument or boost our ego; our goal is not to become famous. We are about Jesus Christ, His gospel, His message, His truth. John said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). A prophet speaks for the Lord, not for himself. A prophet announces God’s agenda, not his own. A prophet is about Jesus.
Here, then, are four important points about powerful prophecy: poise, product, purity, and person.
You are a preparing prophet whom the Lord seeks. Someone was John the Baptist for you. Someone brought you to Christ. Thank God for that person, but remember that you, too, are called to be John the Baptist for others. Learn from John. Apply his principles and make disciples for Jesus Christ.
Continuing our examination of less-well-known Advent hymns, today we will look at the marvelous “Veni Redemptor Gentium” (“Come Redeemer of the Nations”), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Sadly, it is not often sung in Catholic parishes today, and most people I’ve asked have never even heard of it.
One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they delve into its more hidden mysteries and give a sweeping theological vision.
Here we are in Advent and Jesus is coming. Get ready! Well, yes, but He’s not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand. How can all of that be squeezed into a single Advent hymn? You’ll see below.
Full vision – For now, ponder the theological point that hymns like this make: no act of God can be reduced merely to the act in itself. Everything God does is part of His sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us. Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way, but it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.
Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time” but no passion or death.
Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of His incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.
With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, so seldom sung in our Catholic parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (“Puer Natus”). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.
Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity, His equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.
Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth, Come manifest thy virgin birth: All lands admire, all times applaud: Such is the birth that fits our God.
Forth from his chamber goeth he, That royal home of purity, A giant in twofold substance one, Rejoicing now his course to run.
The Virgin’s womb that glory gained, Its virgin honor is still unstained. The banners there of virtue glow; God in his temple dwells below.
From God the Father he proceeds, To God the Father back he speeds; Runs out his course to death and hell, Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.
O Equal to thy Father, thou! Gird on thy fleshly mantle now; The weakness of our mortal state With deathless might invigorate.
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.
All laud, eternal Son, to thee Whose advent sets thy people free, Whom with the Father we adore, And Holy Ghost, for evermore.
This video below gives you an idea of what the melody for “Veni Redemptor Gentium” sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect.
As we continue to ponder various advent hymns, let’s turn our attention to one that is much more familiar to Anglicans and Methodists than to Catholics: “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” In fact, it is considered one of the “Great Four Anglican Hymns.” Its text was written by John Cennick and Charles Wesley in 1758. Deriving much of its content from the Book of Revelation, it is a magnificent meditation on the glorious Second Coming of Christ.
Let’s consider the hymn verse by verse. Several of the verses draw on an opening vision in the Book of Revelation: Behold, he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him: and they also that pierced him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:7). Depending on their state some will be consoled, and others confronted, but they shall all behold him. The opening verse sets the scene:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
God appears on earth to reign.
Scripture attests that Christ alone is the judge. Jesus says, The Father judges no man: but has given all judgment to the Son, that all men may honor the Son, as they honor the Father. He who honors not the Son honors not the Father who has sent him (John 5:22-23). However, although He alone is the Judge, He does not come alone. Myriad holy ones, saints, attend Him. Here we need not think of saints as merely human beings, for among the holy ones are angels, such as Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him (Matt 25:31-32). Similarly, of the heavenly company it is said that in addition to the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, there is also a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).
It is as Joel prophesied:Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14).
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
The Book of Malachi describes the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. In that vision there are two groups whose reactions and experiences are quite different. Of unrepentant sinners it is said, For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble; the day is coming when I will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of Hosts. “Not a root or branch will be left to them (Malachi 4:1). But of those who repented and sought the Lord it is said, But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and leap like calves from the stall (Mal 4:2). Yes, for those who have been brought up to the temperature of glory and are accustomed to the light, the Day of the Lord will be as a beautiful, sunlit day. For the unrepentant, that same fiery light will seem an inferno of blazing heat and blinding light. This distinction unfolds in this and the following verses.
Here and in the next verse, those who pierced and nailed him now see what they have done—they opposed and killed our very God and Lord, Jesus Christ. The Lord speaks of their angry lament as the “wailing and grinding of teeth” (e.g., Matt 22:13, 24:51).
Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heaven and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!
Creation itself falls back before the glory of God. The entire cosmos seems swept aside. The Lord judges the living and the dead by fire. This fiery judgement will remake and renew the created world, which has longed for this day. St. Paul attests, Creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:19-22). But now the trumpet has sounded (1 Cor 15:52); the earth yields its dead, and all creation with humanity stands before God.
Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
See the day of God appear!
In this verse, attention is turned to those who rejoice on this Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Here, the Lord answers the martyrs cry, which John heard; I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers, were killed, just as they had been killed (Rev 6:9-11). Yes, here is the reckoning and revelation of those who won through by the Blood of the Lamb, as opposed to those who rejected His offer of salvation.
Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heaven and earth inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!
Here, the Church, the Lord’s Bride, also rejoices, for her stance has always been, as St. John says,[The Spirit and the bride say,] “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely…. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:17,20). All creation groans, too, seeking to hasten the Lord’s return: We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time (Rom 8:22).
The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The Lord’s scars are the glorious sign of His love and His conquest. Another hymn of the Church, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” has this among its lyrics:
Behold His hands and side;
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.
Finally, let’s look at last verse our great hymn, the doxology:
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!
It is truly a literary masterpiece; it masterfully sums up the Book of Revelation and paints a picture of the Second Coming in sweeping, majestic poetry. Cherish it and meditate on it frequently.
In the performance below, it is sung to the tune “Helmsley,” which was first published in 1763:
Part of the genius of African-American spirituals is their ability to treat serious themes such as the final judgment in a creatively compelling manner that steers a middle course between unproductive fear and prideful presumption. Some of them are even playful: “I would not be a sinner. I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die!” Another one says, “Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe. If you don’t watch out, he’ll slip it on you!” Yet another warns with love, “In that great gettin’ up morning, fare you well, fare you well! Oh, fare you well, poor sinner, fare you well!”
Some of the early African-American hymns from the late 19th century also draw heavily on this tradition. One such hymn is “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?” by Charles P. Jones (1865-1949). In it, the question “Where shall I be?” is applied to a litany of biblically based descriptions of the Second Coming of Jesus, when He will judge the world by fire. Each verse is steeped in rich, biblical tradition. Together, they provide us with a series of reflections rooted in the essential Advent focus on the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus.
When I sing it along with my congregation each Advent, I am reminded of the familiar themes of another masterpiece: the ancient “Dies Irae.” That hymn is also richly biblical and I have written about it on the blog in the past (here).
Let’s ponder each line of “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds.”
Here is the hymn in toto, followed by a line-by-line analysis, including biblical references and some brief commentary.
When judgment day is drawing nigh,
Where shall I be?
When God the works of men shall try,
Where shall I be?
When east and west the fire shall roll,
Where shall I be?
How will it be with my poor soul:
Where shall I be?
O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds,
O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead?
O where shall I be when it sounds?
When wicked men His wrath shall see,
Where shall I be?
And to the rocks and mountains flee,
Where shall I be?
When hills and mountains flee away,
Where shall I be?
When all the works of man decay,
Where shall I be?
When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll,
Where shall I be?
Shall from God’s angry presence roll,
Where shall I be?
When all the saints redeemed shall stand,
Where shall I be?
Forever blest at God’s right hand,
Where shall I be?
When judgment day is drawing nigh, Where shall I be?
Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door (Matt 24:32-33).
Do not grumble … The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9)
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock (Rev 3:20).
If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping (Mk 13:36).
For, in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay (Heb 10:37).
While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thess 5:3).
Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!” (Rev 10:5-6)
Judgment day is drawing nearer and nearer for us all. With each beat of our heart the moment edges closer. What are you doing to get ready? The “Dies Irae” says, “Day of wrath and doom impending. … Heaven and earth in ashes ending.” Do not delay your conversion to the Lord. The Lord has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:19-20).
When God the works of men shall try, Where shall I be?
Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15).
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done (Matt 16:27).
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds (Rev 20:12).
God will repay each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger (Rom 2:6-8).
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word he has spoken (Matt 12:36).
So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-11).
We will not be saved by our deeds, but we will be judged by them, for the veracity of saving faith is made manifest by its work. As Jesus attests, The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil (Matt 12:35). Hence, our works will be tried by God. That is, they will be judged by the Lord Jesus, to whom we must render an account. The “Dies Irae” says, “Lo, the book, exactly worded, Wherein all hath been recorded, Thence shall judgment be awarded.”
When east and west the fire shall roll, Where shall I be?
Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays (Mal 4:1-3).
For behold, the LORD is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place (Micah 1:3-4).
By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched, and the people will be fuel for the fire; they will not spare one another (Isaiah 9:19).
For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many (Is 66:15-16).
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly …. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat (2 Peter 7, 10-12).
The only way to survive on the day of fire is to be fire yourself. Let God set you on fire with love and bring you up to the temperature of glory. Let God send tongues as of fire to enkindle in you the fire of His love.
How will it be with my poor soul: Where shall I be?
For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? “And if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So, then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good (1 Peter 4:17-19).
While we can have confidence for the day of salvation, this confidence cannot be in our own ability; it must rest in the grace and mercy of God. We are all poor sinners, beggars before God. The “Dies Irae” says, “What shall I, frail sinner, be pleading? Who for me be interceding? When the just are mercy needing?”
O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52).
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matt 24:30-31).
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16).
The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south (Zech 9:14).
The trumpet summons all to judgment, some to glory and others to wrath. This is an appointment that all must keep! The “Dies Irae” says, “Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth; Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth; All before the throne it bringeth.”
When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? O where shall I be when it sounds?
And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt (Dan 12:1-2).
And [The Father] He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (Jn 5:27-29).
For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52).
Where will you be? Will you be with the righteous or with the wicked, with the saints or with the aints? Everyone will rise but to different realities. Where shall I be?
When wicked men His wrath shall see, Where shall I be?
Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, says the LORD Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them (Mal 4:1).
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:7).
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18).
You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Eph 2:2-3).
You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:9-10).
Are you getting this? The Day of Judgment is going to be bad for the wicked. They will experience God’s wrath. And what is God’s wrath? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sin in the presence of God’s holiness. It is like fire and water coming together. They cannot coexist; there is a fundamental conflict and one has to give way. So it is with sin in the presence of God—no can do. Only Jesus can give us the capacity to stand before God’s utter sanctity. Only Jesus can rescue us from the coming wrath. The “Dies Irae” says, “When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded, Call me with Thy saints surrounded.”
And to the rocks and mountains flee, Where shall I be? When hills and mountains flee away, Where shall I be?
As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us! and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)
Men will go into caves of the rocks And into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD And the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble (Is 2:19).
Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
You can’t run from God because He’s everywhere. There will be no escape, no postponing the Day of Judgment.
When all the works of man decay, Where shall I be?
Each man’s work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15).
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (2 Peter 3:10).
Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matt 24:2).
All things of man will pass away, including all our works. Only what we do for Christ will endure. Jesus says, You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you (Jn 15:16). Only what you do for Christ will last. All other works will decay.
When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll, Where shall I be? Shall from God’s angry presence roll, Where shall I be?
Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies … the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves (Isaiah 34:1-4).
The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night (Rev 8:12).
The “Dies Irae” says, “Death is struck and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its Judge an answer making.” If even the stars are struck and must answer, who are we to make light of judgment?
When all the saints redeemed shall stand, Where shall I be? Forever blest at God’s right hand, Where shall I be?
But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness (Mal 3:2).
Wherefore … having done all to stand, Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints (Ephesians 6:10-18).
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’ (Matt 25:31-33).
The Dies Irae says, “With Thy sheep a place provide me, From the goats afar divide me, To Thy right hand do Thou guide me. When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded, Call me with Thy saints surrounded.”
Yes, it’s quite a song, so rich in biblical allusion! Like the “Dies Irae,” it references many scriptures, vividly and creatively. And like so many of the spirituals, it is able to combine them in ways that are almost celebratory. The hymn is usually sung in an upbeat manner; in my parish we clap hands as we sing.
At the end of the day the question remains: Where shall I be? Will I be among the righteous in glory or among the sinful and unrepentant in Hell? Where, poor sinners that we are, shall we be? Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy, which help us to stand a chance.
As with all of God’s offers, however, grace and mercy can only be accessed through repentance.
This song, like the ancient “Dies Irae,” could not be more clear: we are hastening to the Day of Judgment, a day about which to be sober and for which to be ready. Are you ready? Where shall you be when the first trumpet sounds?
Here is a performance of “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”:
One of the great cries of Advent is for God to rend the heavens and come down (Is 64:1), for Him to stir up His mighty power and come to save us (Ps 80:2). But what is it that we really seek? Is it armies with thunder and lightning? Is it vindication and peace on our terms? In a way, it is a dangerous cry if we mean it that way, for who among us can say that no wrath should come to us but only to those other people who deserve it? If God should come in thunderous judgement, are we really so sure we could endure and be numbered among the just?
It is clear that we need the Lord to save us, but do we see that salvation seen only in earthly terms such that we are saved from our enemies but remain largely unharmed?
In the final essay of volume 11 of his collected works, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) ponders a similar Advent theme. I’d like to present his reflections and add a few of my own. In a sermon from December 2003, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger taught,
Stir up your might, O Lord, and come! This was the cry of Israel in exile … this was the cry of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee [in the storm] “Wake up O Lord and help us!” … And throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters … Stir up your might and come!
… What really is this might of God that seems to be asleep and must be wakened? St. Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians when he says that Christ the Crucified One, who is foolishness and weakness to men, is the wisdom and power of God.
Therefore, when we ask for this real power of God, we are not asking for more money for the Church, for more buildings, for more structures, for more political influence. We are praying for this special, entirely different power of God. We are praying with the awareness that he comes in a powerful way that seems to the world to be weakness and foolishness (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11: pp. 595-596).
Yes, here is the paradox of God’s power: He defeats Satan’s pride by the humility of His Son; disobedience and the refusal to be under any authority are defeated by the obedience and submission of Jesus.
Once stirred, God’s power will not always—or even often—manifest itself in thunder and lightning or in armies that conquer and destroy. Rather, His “strong and outstretched arm” is often found nailed and bloody on the cross. Yet here, and in this way, He defeats Satan. How? Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that.
Thus, the Lord defeats Satan not by the becoming a bigger, fiercer, more vengeful version of him, but by canceling his evil stance with its opposite. The Lord refuses to meet Satan’s terms, to become anything like him or in any way enter his world. In this way, the Lord conquers pride with humility and hate with love. I am mindful of some of the words from an old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
The hymn concludes with these words:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Cardinal Ratzinger continues his essay in this way:
He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that apparently has nothing more to say, yet then proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God.
This paradox should challenge us mightily because it means that God’s help will often not be on our terms. We would like to have every foe vanquished and every sorrow of our life removed. No cross at all; just stir up your power Lord and take it all away. But that is not usually how God’s power stirs in this “paradise lost,” which we chose by our own ratification of Adam and Eve’s sinful choice. We preferred a tree and its fruit to God, and He does not cancel our choice. Instead, He plants the tree of the cross and saves us by the very suffering and death we chose in the ancient Garden of Eden.
Here is God’s true power at work in this sin-soaked and rebellious world: the power of the cross. If you didn’t know what you were asking for when praying, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us,” you do now. We might prefer that God save us on our terms, by the mere vanquishing of our foes and the removal of our suffering, but (as St. Paul teaches) power is made perfect in weakness; it is when we are weak that we are strong, for then the power of God rests on us (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10).
Cardinal Ratzinger then sets forth the challenge of this prayer for us:
[Hence our true declaration is] “Lord wake us up from our drowsiness in which we are incapable of perceiving you, in which we conceal and impede the coming of your holy power.
… Christianity is not a moral system in which we may merely roll up our sleeves and change the world. We see in the movements that have promised us a better world how badly that turns out!
… But [on the other hand] Christians are not merely spectators … rather [the Lord] involves us; he desires to be efficacious in and through us … And so in this cry we pray to him for ourselves and to allow our own hearts to be touched: Your power is in us, rouse it and help us not to be an obstacle to it, but, rather, its witnesses [to its] vital strength.
That may well mean suffering, martyrdom, and loss. It may not—and usually does not—mean that God will simply vanquish our foes and remove all our suffering. In this world the saving remedy is the cross; not just for others but for us, too. On Good Friday, Christ looked like a “loser.” Satan and the world danced. But on Sunday, the Lord got up. Friday was first, Saturday lingered, and then came Sunday. As for Christ, so also for us: always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that also the life of Jesus may be manifested in us (2 Cor 4:10). The victory will come but it comes through the paradoxical power of the cross.
Does this Advent reflection sound too much like Lent for you? Why do you think we are wearing purple during Advent?
Now pray with me (but be sure to understand what you are asking): Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us!
Here is the common Psalm for Advent: Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.