Homecoming

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!"
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers."
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, "Peace be within you."
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Psalm 122; lectionary text for Sunday December 1, 2019, Advent 1

The first Sunday of Advent.  Thanksgiving cooked and eaten and cleared away (and several packets of turkey in the freezer, hurrah).  The Advent wreath set round with fresh candles, bright cranberry red.  Not the liturgically correct purple or blue, but my husband found the box of tall, unburned candles in the thrift store, the price was right, and their color is festive and pleasing.  We lit the first candle last night.  Again, not liturgically correct, being the Saturday before rather than the first Sunday of Advent, but the girls (this the collective noun applied to the two young women who are our daughters) were home then, and not now, so we lit that first candle together.

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’

The girls were home by Tuesday dinner.  Tuesday night I lay in bed and rehearsed that verse in my mind — silently reciting each word in turn — and heard as I did the voices of the girls earlier in the evening.  It was a mental polyphony:  the voice of the text with the voices of my grown daughters together looking at a toy catalog which for some reason still arrives in our mail.  Why did those voices weave together?  Something about homecoming?  About being glad in it?  To whose gladness is the counterpoint keyed?  Is it the gladness of coming home (being welcomed and even, a little, cosseted)?  Is it the gladness of welcoming (me in the kitchen so enjoying the sound of their voices rising and falling in conversation that I delay calling them to do dinner chores)?  Or is it all these gladnesses themselves coming together as welcomed and welcomer sit down to eat together at the table?

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’

Psalm 122 is a ‘psalm of ascents’ according to the superscription.  It is a pilgrimage psalm, evoking the gathering of God’s people, all of them together going up to Jerusalem, ascending the city’s heights, entering the house of the LORD.  The first verb of the psalm is singular — I was glad, I rejoiced — but the trigger for this personal joy is plural — ‘when they said’ — and its experience is communal — ‘let us go.’  Was the psalmist’s gladness unique or did the whole ascending body share it?  Did the gladness rise with the group’s ascent or was it something that they claimed in rote until they reached their goal and stood there, within the gates of Jerusalem, and recognized that the complex of physical sensations — bodies tired, legs aching, feet firmly planted within the gates — included the wild, rising, unreasoning conviction of joy.  Pilgrims and city bound firmly together in this intention, in this arrival, in this jubilee.

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ 

Whose gladness is evoked?  Whose welcome is anticipated?  

What has this psalm to do with Advent?  

The psalmic summons is closely paralleled in the prophetic text:  ‘Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD’’ (Isa 2:3).  The suggestion of David’s ‘thrones’ (why plural?) and of judgment connects with the other texts assigned for this day (Isa 2:1-4; Matt 24:36-44), echoing the theme of God’s purpose for all God’s creation approaching its intended end of peace and security.  ‘I will seek your good,’ the psalmist promises — this promise the culmination of the earlier declaration, ‘Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.’  The city as a person, an other with whom speech may be had, an addressee not just an object.  The city as a conversation partner.  The city and the LORD?  God does not speak in this psalm; the psalmist prays but does not explicitly address the prayer to God.  Yet God is present throughout:  it is the prospect of going up to God’s own home, the singular, unique space in which the LORD condescended to dwell — where God’s name and eyes and heart are forever (1 Kings 9:3) — the occasions that opening profession of joy.   Can the psalmist’s delight be any less than the LORD’s?

Tuesday night I wondered at the possible connection of my gladness and God’s.  I imagined the LORD working in the kitchen to prepare a table for all the sons and daughters coming home, God’s own heart warmed by the presence and voices of God’s adult children in God’s own house.  Then I shied away from my own audacity — it cannot be that.  The psalmist sings joy at the anticipation of ascending to the LORD’s house, the joy of entering in, not the joy of inviting in.  Now, though, I wonder if the joys are not intertwined after all.  The gladness of being welcomed finds an equal measure in the gladness of the welcome given.  Hearts reunite in mutual affection, the desire for peace, the intention for each other’s well-being.  The Advent promise of arrival is expressed in this anticipation of mutual joy, this the ultimate aim of the judgment referenced in the texts:  God’s joy in God’s people; our joy in our LORD.

We extinguish the first Advent candle at the end of dinner.  ‘Now the light which was in one place at one time can be in all places and all times,’ one of the girls intones with joking seriousness.  The joke is that this is a line from the Godly Play** lessons, and neither girl has been in a Godly Play classroom for years and years, and this is our dinner table and not Sunday School.  The seriousness is that ritual embeds itself as deeply as that.  And that the words recited are true.  

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’

I was glad when I realized again that the LORD is coming to be born anew on this God’s own earth.  I was glad when I realized again the joy of inviting God to make a home in me and of me, and not just me alone.  And — when I feel it entire or when I recite it by rote — I am glad when I realize that through the climb in the company of others, there will come the wild, rising, unreasoning joy of God’s own welcome table, set for all places, and all times, until time ends, and begins again, in the house of the LORD.I was glad when I realized again that the LORD is coming to be born anew on this God’s own earth.  I was glad when I realized again the joy of inviting God to make a home of me and not me alone.

** Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education, by Jerome Berryman

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