Tomorrow is the fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s almost Christmas, with only six days to go. I wonder, how different is this last week from the more usual weeks before Christmas in times when we don’t have to worry about pandemics, masks, social distancing, and statistics about new cases and deaths? I’m sure there’s a lot less running around, looking for the last few gifts to be purchased and the trimmings for the family Christmas dinner procured and prepared.
One thing that is missing this year is the annual Christmas presentation of Handel’s Messiah, the oratorio written and first presented 279 years ago. Although only half of it is directly related to Christmas and the prophecies surrounding the coming of the Messiah, the entire three-part oratorio is presented most often during the Christmas season by professional choirs and orchestras as well as volunteer church choirs and musicians. It is a marker of the season and a tradition that has continued for centuries.
The daily office gospel is a familiar passage from Isaiah 40:4, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” The first three verses of the chapter are sung as a tenor recitative and continue with the singer continuing with the lovely and melodic aria with the fourth and fifth verses.
John the Baptist repeated Isaiah’s words, found in the Gospel According to Luke, to reiterate to the crowds that he was not the Messiah, nor was he the prophet Elijah, the one said to be the forerunner of the Messiah on earth. John was a messenger, the master of ceremonies who sets the stage for the lead performer. His job was to encourage repentance and cleansing that came from ritual immersion in the living water of the Jordan river. He was to get the crowd ready, and he was successful at it.
I find that hearing the tenor air makes me think of what the world would look like if the mountains and valleys were suddenly equal. I know I’ve watched enough documentaries on mountains’ geology and the various natural phenomena that either build them up or tear them down. I also remember seeing images of villages wiped out through avalanches and mudslides so that the valleys where whole villages suddenly became elevated by mud, rocks, and sometimes snow. It is impossible not to think of the loss of human life and the destruction of decades or even centuries of domestic inhabitance.
Still, the metaphor of the mountains flattening and the valleys rising reminds me of how perhaps God wanted the earth to be: an even playing field with no rich and poor but only equals in every sense. The early church tried this utopian idea by putting all their wealth and worldly goods into a repository for the common good. There have been many civilizations and groups who have attempted this since then. Still, most have not succeeded for one reason or another. Yet the dream remains, and the metaphor continues to be food for thought.
With its geological and meteorological drifts, the earth is diverse. Its different climates and cultures have adapted to their locations. Diversity is an unshakeable reality, but too many seem to find such complexity unacceptable to their beliefs or status. Just as there are mountains and valleys, many status divisions depend on culture, religion, economic and financial positions, even health or disability. How do we lower the mountains and raise the valleys to make all equal without destroying some of the very things that make diversity in our world today? Perhaps the key may be found in the words of the prophet Micah, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. ” (6:8) Or, as Jesus taught, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37b-40).
As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we might give some time to reflect on what all this means, what loving neighbors, humility, being merciful, and above all, loving God with everything we have inside us. Perhaps the leveling of mountains and valleys is an internal job that we need to do to get ready for what is to come.
We can’t change the past, only repent of whatever wrongdoing we have done. However, we can resolve to try to live as God wants us to, even sending God’s Son to earth to provide us an example. If we can watch videos to learn how to do new things, reading scripture, and using Jesus as a model can help us become the people we are intended to be.
COVID-19 or not, we can still celebrate Christmas and resolve to be present to God throughout the season. We can also be mindful of the needs of others and work to meet those needs. We can do some interior landscaping with our prejudices, faults, and sinfulness to make them grow less as we grow in grace and attitude. We can’t wrap that and put it under the tree. Still, we can accept those two gifts, especially the grace, and use it to change our mountains and valleys to peaceful, useful, and godly plains.
Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent and Merry Christmas.
Image: Measures 24-41 of Tenor line of “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” Handel, G.F., 1741. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats, who provide entertainment and aesthetics, even when asleep.