«Advent is more complicated than Easter. When Paul Spicer approached me about writing a follow-up to our „Easter Oratorio‟, suggesting we take ...»
Advent Oratorio: Preface
Advent is more complicated than Easter. When Paul Spicer approached me about writing a
follow-up to our „Easter Oratorio‟, suggesting we take Advent as the theme, it seemed to me both
completely appropriate and freshly challenging.
Easter is about one single, massive moment: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We
have four different accounts of that moment and its immediate aftermath, and for the Oratorio we
took John‟s version as having the most obvious and varied „human interest‟, in the meetings of the risen Jesus with several of his followers. Advent isn‟t like that. It‟s about two different historical moments which, though they‟re umbilically joined, do not immediately reveal how they fit together.
The great, massive Advent moment is still to come in the future, and this provides the over-arching structure of the present Oratorio. Both Old and New Testaments promise that one day the God who created the world will flood it with his glory, transforming it so that it thrills and throbs with his love, justice and peace. That is the promise, from both Testaments, that forms the outer structure of the present work. In the Old Testament, this is seen in well-known Psalms such as 96 and 98, and in particular the great Messianic vision of Isaiah 11, where the whole creation is restored in peace under the rule of the „little child‟. In the New Testament, it encompasses passages such as Acts 1, Philippians 3, and of course Revelation, which speak of the return of Jesus himself (the „second coming‟) to put all things to rights.
Part of the difficulty of grasping all this, in our day, is the frustrating fact that a good deal of Western Christianity has almost entirely forgotten this promise. Many people assume without question that the final Christian hope is to leave this wicked world of space, time and matter and to go off, as disembodied souls, into „heaven‟. That is fine as a statement of what happens to God‟s people immediately after they die, but it won‟t do as an account of the great scriptural promises of new creation. There is a further, fuller hope, for a new world in which we shall have new bodies and new tasks to perform, celebrating and implementing God‟s victory over evil, injustice and death itself. The outer framing of this Oratorio tries to capture and celebrate this fuller hope.
The other „moment‟, umbilically joined to this final one, is of course the first „coming‟ of Jesus.
In the four gospels, this is not primarily concerned with Jesus‟ birth, important though that is, but with his appearance at the time of John‟s baptism, and the launch of his public ministry in which he announces that God is at last becoming King. This combination of themes makes our own liturgical keeping of Advent very complex: are we preparing for Christmas, for the Coming of Jesus through John‟s Baptism, or for the Second Coming? The answer, liturgically, often seems to be „all three‟, but I suspect that many ordinary worshippers are just confused. In this Oratorio, we are not concerned with Christmas, but with the other two „comings‟. We attempts to show, poetically and musically, how the coming of Jesus at the start of his public ministry „nests‟ within the larger picture of the final sorting-out of all things (also known as „the last judgment‟).
Jesus‟ Kingdom-announcement („What would it look like if God was running the show? Watch and listen and you‟ll find out!‟) is the anticipation, close up and personal in Jesus‟ deeds and words, of the final promise in the Psalms and Isaiah. So the role of John the Baptist, whose brief story forms the inner core of the Oratorio, is to get people ready for this „coming‟. His ministry of baptism picks up the Old Testament promises of God‟s fresh cleansing of his people. His preaching and teaching warn people to get ready for the Coming One who will sweep through God‟s world and God‟s people like a forest fire. And part of that „getting ready‟ is the challenge to live already, in the present time, by the rule of the justice that is coming. Hence John‟s simple, direct challenge to his hearers.
The close link between first and second „comings‟ of Jesus then becomes clear. Jesus is baptized by John. The Spirit descends, anointing Jesus afresh for his public ministry. The voice of God himself is heard, announcing him as his beloved Son. He is the one who will bring God‟s sovereign, saving rule „on earth as in heaven‟. The double Advent theme thus dovetails perfectly together. The first coming is not only the preparation for the second one; it forms a kind of template for it. Learning to live appropriately between the two „comings‟, under the rescuing rule of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, is what it means to be Christian.
Music – that mysterious world in which we discover new dimensions of time itself – is one of the gifts which enables us to make this strange double story our own. It is a privilege once again to be teamed up with Paul Spicer to bring faith and art together in creative fusion. And it is a joy to think of this work being performed in Lichfield Cathedral, which has for so long been for so many a sign and a means of God‟s coming kingdom.
1. Opening Chorus When the deaf hear the song of the new-born swan and the lame go dancing on gold;
When the pauper raises his cheerful glass, And the blind exclaim at the bright green grass, And the hills bow down for the Lamb to pass, Then the tale will at last be told.
It‟s a tale of a world put right at last, it‟s the news of justice done;
It‟s the story the dead are eager to learn, it‟s the song of the hedgerow, the stream and the fern, it‟s the whisper of a long-lost Lord‟s return, Of heaven and earth made one.
When the axe is laid to the root of the tree (As the Baptist saw long ago);
When the greedy are blamed, and the violent tamed, and the liars are named and the lustful ashamed, and the rights of the poor are at last proclaimed, Then the River of Life will flow.
And the Tree will grow its healing leaves, and the Advent bell will ring;
And the stars will sparkle their glad applause, and the seas will lend their voice to the cause, while the angels unlock the ancient doors, To welcome the coming King.
2. Prophet with Chorus: The Coming of the King (Isaiah 11/Psalm 96) Prophet A branch will grow from Jesse‟s root Inspired with Yahweh‟s breath;
Spirit of wisdom, counsel, might, Blow through the world to set things right And conquer fear and death!
Chorus A new song for Yahweh! He‟s coming to rule!
Let all creation erupt with his praise;
The sneers of injustice, the taunt of the fool Fall silent when faced with his questioning gaze.
Prophet The wolf shall lie beside the lamb The lion shall eat hay;
The child shall play beside the snake The earth will yawn, and stretch, and wake To greet Messiah‟s day.
Chorus He‟s coming to reign! He‟s coming as king!
Let all the nations be glad and rejoice.
The sea and the field and the forest shall sing At the justice and mercy and truth of his voice!
3. Evangelist: (Luke 3.1–3) It was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar as Emperor;
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea;
Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene;
and Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.
Then it was that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.
He went through all the region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
4. Aria: It was to him
It was to him that they came:
To the wild-eyed man with the unkempt beard Eating wild honey. They were tired Of the smooth priests, the tame tetrarchs, The bullying governor and Caesar sneering from the tribute penny.
They wanted news Of a Coming, a Kingdom, a wild Untameable future, full of forgiveness And fresh beginnings. It was to him That they came: to the cry of promise, The word that echoed through the silent centuries, The voice in the wilderness.
5. Prophet and Chorus: I will sprinkle clean water (Ezekiel 36) Prophet
Thus says Yahweh:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, And you shall be clean;
A new heart I will give you And a new Spirit I will put within you;
And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Chorus Come, Lord, and cleanse us from our sin;
Your new, glad work in us begin.
Remove our idols from our sight;
Let us in you alone delight.
Prepare us for your coming reign By washing us from every stain;
Make known to us your holy Name;
Let us no more turn back to shame.
Call us to you from every land, And guide us with your powerful hand;
Show us the path that we must tread, Let us by you with joy be led.
Implant your Spirit in our heart, That, with your Breath, new life may start;
Take from our flesh the heart of stone, Let us rejoice in you alone.
For your own sake your love display, That we may worship and obey;
Rebuild the wild and desert place;
Let us acclaim your sovereign grace.
6. FIRST HYMN: HARK A HERALD VOICE
Hark! A herald voice is calling:
„Christ is nigh,‟ it seems to say;
„Cast away the dreams of darkness, O ye children of the day!‟ Startled by the solemn warning, Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her Sun, all sloth dispelling, Shines upon the morning skies.
Lo! The Lamb, so long expected, Comes with pardon down from heaven;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow, One and all to be forgiven.
That when next he comes in glory, Wrapping all the earth in fear, He may then as our defender On the clouds of heaven appear.
Honour, glory, virtue, merit To the Father and the Son, With the co-eternal Spirit While unending ages run. Amen.
7. Evangelist and Prophet: (Luke 3.7–9) Evangelist
When John saw the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, he said to them:
Prophet „You brood of vipers! Who told you to escape from God‟s coming anger? You‟d better prove your repentance by bearing the right fruit! Don‟t start saying to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father”; let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! The axe is already standing by the roots of the tree – so every tree that doesn‟t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.‟
8. Chorus: The fire in the forest
The fire in the forest The axe at the root The judgment is coming The snakes are in panic The oak trees are falling The judgment is coming The vipers are fleeing The branches are crashing The judgment is coming So, Abraham‟s children, Escape through the water The wild Advent water The judgment is coming Escape while you can!
9. Aria: The stone the builders set aside The stone the builders set aside Now crowns the highest wall;
The stone that smashed the statue‟s feet Has made the idol fall.
The stone that lay by Jordan‟s stream Aroused by prophet wild Springs to its feet in glad surprise As Abraham‟s new-born child.
A hard-won mercy still shall come Though judgment be severe;
New life, new love, new loyalty From Abraham shall appear.
The Coming One shall call a tribe Of twelve unlikely friends;
Through them the promise shall come true And God achieve his ends.
10: Boys‟ Voices: From the Lips of Little Children From the lips of little children
Perfect praise our God will bring:
Sing and cheer and shout Hosanna!
Alleluias to our King!
If the little ones fall silent Rocks and stones will start to sing.
From the stones by Jordan river
New disciples God will bring:
Abraham‟s children, judged and ransomed, Rise renewed to serve our King.
When the tree to earth has fallen, From the stump new shoots will spring.
Abraham shall greet his children From the nations God will bring;
Streaming in from earth‟s far corners To exalt the world‟s true King.
Living stones, to build his Temple, Shall with joy his praises sing.
11. Evangelist, Prophet and Chorus (Luke 3.10–14) Evangelist And the crowds asked John, Chorus What should we do?
Evangelist John said in reply, Prophet „Anyone who has two cloaks should give one to someone without one. And anyone with plenty of food should do the same.‟ Evangelist Some toll-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked, Chorus „Teacher, what should we do?‟ Evangelist John said in reply, Prophet „Don‟t collect more than what is appointed.‟ Evangelist Some soldiers, too, asked John, Chorus „What about us? What should we do?‟ Evangelist And he said to them, Prophet „No extortion, and no blackmail. Be content with your wages.‟
12. Aria: While we await the dawn
Justice will dawn, in person. While we wait
We must awaken justice in our midst:
Not high, imagined, general
dreams Of worlds beyond our reach; but coats and food And honest money. In a dangerous world God‟s order is a signpost to the dawn;
But those who wield that order must themselves Be subject to God‟s wise restraining hand.
13. SECOND HYMN: THY KINGDOM COME!
Thy kingdom come! On bended knee The passing ages pray;
And faithful souls have yearned to see On earth that kingdom‟s day.
But the slow watches of the night Not less to God belong;
And for the everlasting right The silent stars are strong.
And lo! Already on the hills The flags of dawn appear;
Gird up your loins, ye prophet souls, Proclaim the day is near.
The day in whose clear, shining light All wrong shall stand revealed;
When justice shall be throned with might And every hurt be healed.
When knowledge, hand in hand with peace Shall walk the earth abroad;
The day of perfect righteousness The promised day of God.
14. Evangelist and Prophet: (Luke 3.15–17) Evangelist All the people were on tiptoe with excitement, wondering whether John might be the Messiah.