Advent Disruption

The first Sunday of Advent has become associated with a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Like a lot of Bach’s work, Wachet Auf wasn’t originally by the great composer, Bach worked his music around a hymn tune already in circulation. What makes it Bach, what makes it great, is the counterpoint. Counterpoint is a musical term especially associated with Bach. Essentially it means that two or more unrelated tunes are played together. Though not on the same rhythm, interwoven they build beautiful and complex harmony.

Bach’s original music, in the fourth movement of the cantata which he later also arranged for organ initially sounds like a sleepy prelude over a slight punchy bass line. Then, about 12 stanzas in, the tune “Sleeper’s Wake! A voice is sounding!” suddenly begins. The third tune comes as a surprise, an interruption. Sleepers wake is a theme that resounds through the readings of this first Sunday of Advent.

Sleepers wake!

Sleepers wake! Advent comes as an interruption, a surprise. The rest of the world is celebrating the arrival of the commercial season of Christmas. We say in the church that today we celebrate the start of a new year. We’ve decked the church and the clergy not in red or white, but in blue. We have lit the first candle in the Advent wreath. While the rest of society jingles all the way to the 25th of December, we are playing a different tune. For Christians the year begins with waiting, anticipating, longing.

Today we are told to “stay awake.” Advent includes, always, a warning. God is coming. Not just in a sweet nostalgic way at Christmas, but as a disrespectful disruption. Our hope, as Christians always lies beyond the present times. Our hope, our Advent hope, is that the world as it is will cease. God will come down with clouds descending.

There are Christians who believe these prophecies in a frighteningly literal way. There are Christians who are counting on the rapture as an exit strategy. I once got in an argument with a friend who self-identifies as an evangelical and literalist about climate change. He’s enough of a scientist to say, “yes” he believes global warming is attributable to human causes. But he said, “why do anything about it? The Bible tells us this world has to pass away.” Is that, dear friends, how we ought to read this passage?

You will be unsurprised to hear me say, “I don’t share that opinion.” What then are we to do with this assertion by Jesus that the coming of the human one, the Son of Man as earlier translations would have read, what are we to do with these frightening predictions? Should we lose sleep?

Well, frankly, in our world today anyone who isn’t already losing sleep just isn’t paying attention. If you find your sleep disrupted, you are not alone. But I would argue that Jesus is inviting us to a different sort of wakefulness, out beyond anxiety.

The theologian and contemplative teacher Barbara Holmes wrote in her recent book, “Crisis Contemplation” these words: “Despite all evidence to the contrary, I insist on seeing our current state of affairs as the rupture of one state of being that will prepare us for another reality.” The rupture of one state of being that will prepare us for another reality.

A state of rupture

We are, then, at a state of rupture. We don’t need the prophets to tell us. The news uses the term “breaking point” all the time, along with its synonymous phrase, “at the edge.” We can feel the edginess, the breaking. What Holmes is inviting us also to see, what Jesus is inviting us to wake up to, is the possibility that the world needs a good break. The injustices which make up our status quo must cease. If you need a break from all the intensity, you’re invited to come and sit in a quiet church, and to hear the counterpoint: There is hope beneath it all, hope that justice might still reign, hope that despite all the readymade displays of wealth and power on offer, the quiet insistence of love might outlast them.

You can hear that promise in the words of Isaiah. These verses became the refrain of one of my favorite spirituals, “ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more.” This Advent, can we dare to imagine with Isaiah? Imagine the resources that would be available to our society if we could truly forget how to wage war. If we didn’t feel we needed ro invest so many billions of dollars every year into the development of weaponry. What human creativity could be unleashed? Can we even imagine that world prophesied by Isaiah? We would need a rupture, a break from the world as currently exists. Dare we even imagine? Advent challenges us to dare.

This week, the interviews with Richard Fierro, the dad and army veteran who, with the help of a drag performer, stopped the shooter at club Q. In interviews, he appeared shaken, humble, and firm. This straight Latino man called the LGBTQ+ community “our community” and said, “I had to defend my family.” Amidst the mourning, there is also a note of hope. Unarmed love stopped too heavily armed hate. Imagine if that was the picture we painted of masculinity.

Advent comes as disruption

It feels unrealistic, but in a world addicted to violence, Advent comes as a disruption. Again, Barbara Holmes, writes that in order to work for change what we need is a particular kind of wakefulness, a particular way of paying attention. Holmes grew up in the Black Church. She lives in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and much of her Crisis Contemplation was written in response to her experience of the protests after the murder of George Floyd. Holmes says that in response to crisis

we need more mystery, not less… [Spirituality] helps people under siege to transcend hatred and sustain hope, to meet devastating violence with communal resilience and peaceful resistance.

How do we stay awake? How do we keep our eyes on the goal, despite all that is going on. Not with more fear, but with hope. Not with more hate, but with love. Not with more frenzied consumption, but with noticing all of the pregnant possibility in each moment. How do we stay awake? By slowing down and amplifying the good news still present in our world.

This season of waiting, of hope, of expectation, it’s a time of practice. Our world doesn’t wait well. Advent asks us to practice waiting. Even amidst the tinny holiday music clinically designed to make us buy yet more junk, underneath the disastrous drumbeats of the news, listen. There is another melody playing. There is a counterpoint.

JS Bach and the end of the world

Part of what I love about Bach’s Wachet Auf, is hearing how a musician or conductor chooses to bring in the third theme. When I studied music, I was both a tenor and a trumpet player. A bunch of the choir probably just rolled their eyes as if I just made a deep revelation, “that explains everything.” Okay, sure, but let me also say, the best trumpet players and the best tenors still know, we have choices to make. The player can blast the announcement, and sometimes that is just the disruption we need. “Sleepers Wake!” can come like a blaring alarm clock for an early flight out of town. Honestly though, I think Advent is better served by gentleness, a mezzo forte at most.

My favorite recording these days of Wachet Auf has Yo Yo Ma introduce the new melody quietly on the cello. Ma plays it with this certain longing, the kind of longing which might even be a gift, especially as it contrasts in this particular recording with Chris Thile’s earnest insistent plucking on the mandolin. Longing can be a gift, it can, when contrasted to the saccharine intensity of our day.

Advent points us to the coming of the Messiah. But if we are willing and able to listen, God’s disruption is always there, always available. We simply have to pay attention, make room for waiting, and allow ourselves to feel the hopeful longing. God’s reign of justice, God’s reign of love has the power to be present to us in every moment, even the loud present moment. We simply have to slow down, get humble, and listen for the counterpoint.

A Blessed Advent to you. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Advent Disruption

  1. Thank you, Mike, for this wonderful “deep dive” into Wachet Auf, one of my all-time favorite Advent hymns. As someone who studied and played cello for several years (and who has great admiration for Yo Yo Ma) I particularly liked your comment on that rendition, to which I will listen as soon as I finish this comment. Happy Advent!

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