It is the 13,959th word in the Tale of Melibee. Some call it the longest, most boring of all the Canterbury Tales. After scanning 25 pages to find the word “contempt,” I agree! Sometime between 1387 and 1400 C.E., Geoffrey Chaucer declared that “familiarity breeds contempt.” Familiarity also breeds contentment. Therein lies a tale which I pray is neither too long nor tedious.
In the past, I have served as an interim Conference Minister. I frequently drove the same highways on the way to visit congregations. One Sunday, I was sure I knew the route well enough to start at the last minute yet arrive on time. I was content because of my familiarity.
Less than halfway there, a yellow sign commanded a turn. It was a very long detour. I was sure there was a shorter route. That was only one mistake. There were detours on the detour. I made wrong turns. One of them led to a gravel road pocked with potholes. I was 20 minutes late for the worship service. I trotted into the sanctuary, my robe billowing behind like a sail. The congregation was singing, “rise up, O men of God, the Church for you doth wait!” Life without detours and potholes would be splendid and less embarrassing!
Alberto Vinas Taule may have had splendid in mind when he composed Toda La Tierra (All Earth is Waiting). Stanza three of the hymn is our theme for this third week in Advent. The verse captures the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new day of God, which softens the bumps and obstacles through which we struggle on the way to hope and joy. Listen here:
Mountains and valleys
Will have to be made plain:
Open new highways,
New highways for our God,
Who is now coming closer,
So come all and see,
And open the door-ways
As wide as wide can be.
Composer G.F. Handel addressed this same vision based on Isaiah 40:4.
The first time I sang Handel’s version of the prophet’s message was across the street from United Church Homes’ corporate offices. It was a very long time ago before offices were located in Marion, Ohio, across Center Street from Epworth Methodist Church. Our high school music director invited some of us to sing the Messiah with an adult community chorus. Rehearsals were held at Epworth, and the chorus struggled to sing the long runs of notes in Handel’s score.
However, this tenor soloist sings the coloratura of the aria “Every Valley” without a breath in the middle of those phrases! When you listen here, also note the commentator’s remark, “There has never been a change message as big as this one!” and see such delight in the singer’s expressions!
Every valley shall be exalted
And ev'ry mountain and hill made low
The crooked straight
And the rough places plain
Eugene Peterson paraphrases the passage this way in The Message:
Make the road straight and smooth
Fill in the valleys,
level off the hills,
Smooth out the ruts,
clear out the rocks.
“All earth is waiting” describes the restless eagerness of long ago for a Promised One. Advent today similarly is a longing for release from the dread of illness, for relief from advisable distancing, and for the opportunity to celebrate the Christmas mass by singing carols together.
While you wait for time without the potholes and detours of COVID-19, sing favorite carols at home, dig out your Christmas CD collection, hum along with holiday TV shows, write notes in Christmas cards because you have time this year, and join Christmas Eve services with your family via Zoom. Light your Advent candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.
Those familiarities breed contentment and smooth the way forward! May you find abundant blessings as all the earth waits.