My wife and I learned to sing it at a General Synod meeting. It could be a good anthem for Advent. Portions of the lyrics are:
“There’ll be joy in the morning in that day;
There’ll be peace and contentment everywhere;
There’ll be love and forgiveness everywhere;
Every heart, every voice on that day will rejoice;
There will be joy, love, and peace.”
Listen to the whole anthem written by Natalie Sleeth:
Traditional Advent themes are Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. This year, the UCC Desk Calendar labels the Second and Third Sundays of Advent “Vision of Peace” and “Heartbeat of Justice.” At first glance, that seems strange. Especially in a season when stores loaded up with Christmasy angels and Santa Clauses, sprites and candy canes, long before we even got to Halloween.
Secular Christmas music was heard in the malls not long after, and when Thanksgiving was over, we began to hear some religious Christmas songs, too. There weren’t many Advent hymns. Folks are more inclined to hum along with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark the Herald Angels,” and O Come, All You Faithful.” Usually we save “Silent Night, Holy Night” for Christmas Eve candle lighting.
Yearning for a Healed World
Yet in those old familiar carols are intimations of a hopeful yearning. A commentator observes that the community of faith longs for justice, peace, and well-being. Advent, he says, “begins a vision of a healed alternative for the world.”
Our wearied distressed souls are worn down by the chaotic political, economic, health care, racial, and ethnic diatribes all around us. Dare we call them “pandemics” in the culture of the day? As we pivot to Advent scenery lit by candles of Hope, Joy, Love and Peace, something in us wants to exclaim “It’s about time!”
Someone wrote that Advent is “an abrupt disruption,…an entirely new year, new time, new life.”
Advent is an Entirely New Time
Something of that sort must have been in the experience of the prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years ago. We can hear it in these verses selected from Isaiah chapter 35:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
They shall see the glory of the Lord,…
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God……
(God) will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf shall be opened;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert;
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says the passage describes a broken creation and disabled humanity. “Both are in pitiful condition, both desperately yearn for rescue, both are incapable of saving themselves.”
Heartbeat of Justice
Perhaps it is noticing the pitiful condition of our justice systems which prompted someone to name the Third Sunday of Advent “the heartbeat of justice.” I looked online for those words and found Heartbeat Opera, and an adaptation of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio.”
Reviewers have described “Fidelio” as “a musical cry for freedom and justice, a politically powerful opera (which) speaks to our times with its themes of isolation, liberty and humanity.”
In the Heartbeat Opera version of Beethoven’s classic, the story is placed in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is, as someone declared, “a daring adaptation, in which a Black activist is wrongfully incarcerated. His wife, Leah, disguises herself to infiltrate the system and free him…. (highlighting that) when injustice reigns … we (must) consider issues of prison reform and social justice.”
In the opera, the prisoners, released temporarily from their perpetually dark subterranean cells, exult in a few minutes of fresh air and light. We hear hope as well as joy in these portions of the English libretto:
Oh what joy, in the open air
Freely to breathe again!
Up here alone is life!
The dungeon is a grave.
We shall with all our faith
Trust in the help of God!
Hope whispers softly in my ears!
Oh what joy, in the open air
Freely to breathe again!
Up here alone is life.
This YouTube link with English subtitles features the Heartbeat Opera’s version with actual imprisoned persons singing the famous Prisoner’s Chorus in German. I discovered one of the groups, the Kuji Men’s Chorus, is located in the Marion, Ohio Correctional Institution. I grew up in Marion, a couple of streets east of the administrative offices of United Church Homes.
How special it was to discover that the Advent theme “heartbeat of justice” could relate to the Heartbeat Opera version of a classic Beethoven composition, with help from prisoners incarcerated in my hometown!
Bryan Stevenson, attorney, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and author of “Just Mercy,” addresses incarceration injustice and cruelty. Of his interaction with a prisoner wrongfully convicted, he says “he altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption and hopefulness.” Bryan Stevenson’s heartbeat for justice bloomed from that encounter.
In despair over our systematic efforts to steal hope and joy, deny love, and squelch the hope which beats in the heart of justice, he comments that as privatization of the prison industry grows, we have given up on rehabilitation, education, and providing assistance to the incarcerated.
It is a system in which thousands of innocent people suffer unconscionably long sentences because keeping people locked up improves profits. “The privatization of prison health care, prison commerce, and services make mass incarceration a windfall for a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.”
Justice Embodies Love
Two Biblical scholars, Walter Brueggemann and John Dominic Crossan, capture the essence of our Advent themes in light of such present-day conundrums. Crossan writes:
“Justice is the body of love…
Love is the soul of justice…
Love empowers justice
Justice embodies love.”
Brueggemann proposes that Isaiah 35 is “a healing alternative to the church’s grim despair and to our modern sense that no real newness is possible…. Advent is getting ready for that impossibility which permits us to dance and sing and march and thank – and live!”
Advent’s vision of love and heartbeat for justice declares there will indeed be “joy in the morning, peace and contentment; love and forgiveness everywhere (and) every heart, every voice will rejoice!”