Isaiah's Advent suite

Some music you barely hear, it’s just part of the background noise. Jingle Bells at the mall.

Some music you hear and it stays with you. And I don’t mean how you can’t get Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer out of your head after a quick trip to the grocery store.

Some music stays with you – you love the lyrics, you like the beat, it makes you feel good just to hum along. You buy the record. You add it to your playlist. You love waking up to it.

Some music stays with you because it was playing just before your first kiss. You don’t care that nobody else seems to recognize the tune anymore; it’s your song and it will always be. You hear it and it takes you to a very happy place.

And some music just stays with you and you can’t quite say why. It’s not just part of the sound track of your life like all the rest; somehow it’s bigger than that, and you return to it again and again.

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote six suites for cello, sometime in the first half of the 18th century, and like most of his music, they were almost forgotten. In 1890, almost a century-and-a-half after Bach’s death, the great cellist Pablo Casals discovered a tattered copy in a secondhand sheet music store. He wasn’t great then, he was only 13 years old, but he spent years practicing these little-known suites and falling in love with them, before performing and eventually recording them. Bach’s cello suites by Casals has been on my desert island CD list ever since I first heard the staticky opening bars on the radio. And it was on the radio the other day that I heard Tom Ashbrook talk about this music with his guest, Eliot Fisk, who only recently had completed a transcription of the suites for guitar. They talked about how this 300-year-old music continues to draw in listeners; it has this impossible-to-describe quality. One caller said it sounds like it could have been written only yesterday. And then Eliot Fisk mentioned how there’s a lot of talk about fake news these days and how this music is the exact opposite: “This is true—whatever it is.”

Bach’s life was marked by great hardship. He was orphaned at age ten. He was the father of twenty children, but only ten lived to adulthood. His first wife died while he was gone on a trip, and he didn’t know until he came home and was told, “Your wife has died.” He had to live with so many painful losses, and yet his music comes from a place of joy, a deep, calm joy.

Why am I talking about music? Because Isaiah sings. He sings us an Advent song and in his song the desert, the most lifeless place imaginable, sings. The prophet sings of a day when the desolate and dry land erupts with lush life and song.[1] Isaiah doesn’t give us a text on horticulture or desert ecology; he gives us the poetry of hope, a hope grounded in the presence and power of God.

The second movement of Isaiah’s prophetic suite gives voice to the suffering of a people in exile: the lyrics speak of weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts, of lost vision, hindered hearing, paralyzed limbs, and silent tongues – we can see a body utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness, and at the same time we can hear a clear call to strengthen and to make firm and to say to those who are of a fearful heart what the prophet says to us, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold: your God.”

The prophet sings of the desert bursting into song as life erupts, because God will not leave the world as it is, in bondage, in drought, and in exile, but will restore the people and the land to wholeness. The people and the land will rejoice, be glad, and sing. And that joy is not a distant, someday joy. It is present in the song of the prophet and so much music and in all the ways we find to strengthen weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts.

John the Baptist was in prison when he heard what Jesus was doing. So he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Do you remember how he answered? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[2] Go and tell what you hear and see: the healing of all that stands in the way of joy.

We affirm that in Jesus, God has entered the world as a human being, in power and in vulnerability. We testify that he is the one who is to come because in him we recognize the healing love that redeems and restores all things. We follow him because wherever he goes, the kingdom of God breaks in like showers of grace in the desert, and new life emerges. We follow him because his life, all of it, is for us a highway in the wilderness, a holy way: the road home for the people God has redeemed from all our exiles.

In the final movement of Isaiah’s Advent suite for voice and creation we hear and see the children of God walking homeward in a glorious procession of life, and upon their heads – like a canopy, a garland, or a crown – unbounded and unending joy. Some music stays with you because it taps into that joy and in an instant your heart knows, this is true.

There are many things the heart knows and experiences only the heart can comprehend. George Carlin gave us a fine study of how words can hide the truth by concealing reality. He said he didn’t like euphemisms and that American English is loaded with euphemisms. “Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality,” he suspected.

Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that.

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to it’s absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

… Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along and the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. …

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then, of course, came the war in Viet Nam … and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon.[3]

Post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain completely buried under jargon. Now we call it PTSD, removing even the last trace of trauma from from the name. Carlin didn’t mention that two generations before the first world war, during the Civil War, traumatized combatants developed a condition they called soldier’s heart. It broke their heart to see what they saw, to suffer what they suffered, and to do what they did. It broke their heart and shattered their sense of self and of life’s integrity.

Perhaps you noticed that both the prophet Isaiah and the apostle James point to the heart as the place that needs strengthening. Parker Palmer reminds us that the heart is the “center place where all of our ways of knowing converge—intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones.”[4] Our hearts will get broken by loss, failure, or betrayal; the question is not if or when your heart breaks, but how. If your heart breaks apart into pieces, you need others who will shelter and strengthen you as you begin the work of healing. If it breaks open, your capacity to hold the full range of human experience will expand and you will bring new knowledge, true knowledge to those whose lives you touch.[5] I believe this is where Isaiah’s Advent poetry comes from and Bach’s music, from the heart broken open.

So what do we do, other than learning to sing Isaiah’s song of redemption and the song the angels sang the night when Christ was born? In Deuteronomy, Moses recites the words the Lord spoke at Sinai and says, “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.”[6] In one of countless rabbinic story commentaries on that verse, a disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”[7]

[1] See or Death Valley Is Having A Rare And Magical ‘Super Bloom’

[2] Matthew 11:2-5 with quotes from/echoes of Isaiah 29:18f; 35:5f; 42:18; 61:1.


[4] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, 6.

[5] See Palmer, 18.

[6] Deuteronomy 6:6 (RSV)

[7] As told by Jacob Needleman; see Palmer, 149.

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