Advent, Day 7: Behold!

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

—Isaiah 40:3–5

LOOK: Caiphas Nxumalo (South African, 1940–2002), John the Baptist, 1970. Linocut. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 278.

Nxumalo, Caiphas_John the Baptist

Caiphas Nxumalo was a printmaker and wood sculptor who studied at the Rorke’s Drift Art School from around 1968 to 1971 (sources vary on the precise years). He was associated with the African-initiated amaNazaretha Church in South Africa.

In this linoleum cut Nxumalo shows John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, preaching repentance (bottom; Matt. 3:1–3), baptizing (Matt. 3:5–6), and eating wild honey (Matt. 3:4). The eye of God, which sees secret sins, burns bright and glorious. I’m not sure whether the people at the bottom are running away from John’s message of wrath or “turning around” from their wickedness to follow the true way. In Matthew’s account there are people from both categories of response.

The triangular frame rising from the base line was a common compositional device Nxumalo used to tell multiple components of a story, and in this context it’s especially appropriate, as it seems to me to allude to the valleys being lifted and the mountains being brought down low—a leveling of the landscape so that God’s glory can be plainly seen from any vantage point. (On another level, this Isaianic prophecy probably also refers to the proud being overthrown and the humble being exalted, as Mary sings about in her Magnificat.)

Advent is about the coming consummation of the kingdom of God in the day of the Lord. In Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge, who calls on the church to restore Advent’s focus on apocalyptic theology, describes John the Baptist as the central figure of Advent. She half-jokes that behind one of those cute little Advent calendar windows should be a coarse, fiery John shouting, “You brood of vipers!” (Matt. 3:7). “Irreducibly strange, gaunt and unruly, lonely and refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age,” John the Baptist “arrives announcing the opening event of the end-time” (277, 13). As prophesied by Malachi at the end of the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 11, “John the Baptist is the new Elijah, standing at the edge of the universe, at the dawn of a new world, the turn of the ages. That is his location as the sentinel, the premier personage of this incomparable Advent season—the season of the coming of the once and future Messiah” (277).

Like John, the church, Rutledge says, is also located on the frontier of the new age, between Jesus’s first and second advents, and we, too, are called to herald the Messiah, announcing, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[Related posts: “Prepare the Way (Artful Devotion)”; “Turn and Live (Artful Devotion)”; “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”]

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

—Matthew 3:1–12

LISTEN: “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!)” by Paul Zach, Isaac Wardell, Leslie Jordan, Lorenzo Baylor, and Brian Nhira, on Justice Songs by the Porter’s Gate (2020) | CCLI #7158500

In my review of Justice Songs (and its companion album, Lament Songs), I wrote,

Justice Songs opens with a rousing call-and-response song, “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” that combines material from the mystical prologue of John’s Gospel with an Isaianic prophecy commonly read during Advent [Isaiah 40:3–5]. . . . Verse 4, syncopated with hand claps, lists divine epithets like “God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). “Father of the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5), “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). “He’s troubling the water, and we’re marching through”—an oblique reference to the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” about the liberation of the Israelites through the miraculously parted Red Sea, the paradigmatic “day of the Lord.”

The refrain, “Behold!,” is a word used hundreds of times throughout scripture, and it means “to fix the eyes upon; to see with attention; to observe with care.” Jesus says in Luke 7:21, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” May we behold with humility and excitement the age to come and respond with fruits of repentance.

Here’s a socially distanced performance of “His Kingdom Now Is Come” by the musicians of Whitworth Campus Worship for the Center for Congregational Song’s Election Day 2020 broadcast.

(Update, 12/9/20: Watch the Porter’s Gate perform this song in the studio on this Instagram video.)

This post marks the end of the first week of Advent. For many more Advent songs, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

“Turn Back, O Man” as motet and showtune

Early this week I was searching the Hymnary database for hymns based on or referent to Sunday’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel 18, where God calls on his people to “repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin” (v. 30b), and the very similar passage later in the book: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).

One of the search results was “Turn Back, O Man” by the English poet and playwright Clifford Bax. Written in 1916, it doesn’t explicitly reference World War I, but it’s likely that that was the intended subtext.

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, its child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”
 
Earth might be fair, and people glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep.
Would they but wake from out their haunted sleep,
Earth shall be fair, and people glad and wise.
 
Earth shall be fair, and all its people one,
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done!
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
Peals forth in joy the old, undaunted cry,
“Earth shall be fair, and all its people one.”

The tune it’s set to in hymnals, OLD 124TH, is by Louis Bourgeois and is from the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter. Gustav Holst arranged the tune as a motet (a polyphonic, unaccompanied choral composition) in 1916 and in fact is the one who approached Bax with the request for a new text.

Here is a performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers, from their 2008 album Great Hymns of Faith:

When I read the first line, it sounded familiar, and I was reminded that the song (with a much different tune and style!) opens the second act of Godspell. This 1971 musical created by John-Michael Tebelak and composed by Stephen Schwartz is based on Jesus’s teaching ministry as told in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s. (The show’s title is the archaic English spelling for “gospel.”) In addition to Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas, the cast consists of eight nonbiblical, “holy fool” characters who use their own names and sing and act out the parables and other sayings.

Tebelak, who wrote the play as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon, was studying Greek and Roman mythology when, in his last year at school, he started reading the Christian Gospels in earnest and was enraptured by the joy they exuded and compelled by their emphasis on community. He tells the story of how on March 29, 1970, in pursuit of knowing more, he attended an Easter Vigil service at a church in Pittsburgh, wearing his usual overalls and a T-shirt—and he was frisked for drugs. “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on,” he said. That experience motivated him to write Godspell.

Tebelak’s Godspell was produced at Carnegie Mellon in late fall 1970, featuring an original song by cast member Jay Hamburger (“By My Side”) and a handful of old Episcopal hymns played by a rock band.

After leaving university, Tebelak took the show to New York City, where prospective producers suggested a new score and brought in Stephen Schwartz for the job. The rescored show, which retained Hamburger’s single song contribution, opened May 17, 1971, at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre and became a hit.

Six of Godspell‘s eighteen song texts, including the chart-topping “Day by Day,” are actually taken straight from the Episcopal Hymnal. Schwartz liked the idea of dusting the cobwebs off some of these stodgy hymns and giving them new melodies with a catchy seventies pop vibe that would leave audiences singing them as they exited the theater.

“Turn Back, O Man” is one of those. It’s sung by Sonia, the sassy character with a put-on sensuality, a role originated by Sonia Manzano (of Sesame Street fame). Here’s the scene from the 1973 film adaptation directed by David Greene, with “Sonia” played by Joanne Jonas:

Isolated from the rest of the musical, this song seems completely irreverent and unbefitting the serious nature of God’s call to repentance. Its zaniness and sense of play, punctuated by Jesus’s pensive delivery of the third verse, is on a par with the tone of the whole—and that unique approach to telling the gospel works, I think, really well overall in Godspell, bringing to mind how “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). The characters embody the countercultural aspect of Jesus’s teachings, which appear ridiculous, clownish, to the rest of the world.

“The characters in Godspell were never supposed to be hippies,” Stephen Schwartz clarifies.

They were supposed to be putting on “clown” garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as was conceived by Godspell’s originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the “Christ as clown” theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others). . . . Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the Godspell movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.

In this particular song, performed by a hammy character in a feather boa, the lyrics entreat hearers to give up their “foolish ways,” going on to suggest that what is truly foolish is living as if asleep—building “tragic empires,” chasing empty dreams. Though endowed with the flame of reason and conscience, humanity at large, generation after generation, keeps rejecting God’s will, hence the lack of global unity and gladness.