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Advent evokes struggle, the struggle to let in the light and dispel the darkness. Preparing the way of the Lord is not a passive enterprise, but a peregrination to break through the veil with prayers, praises, and lamentations so that the rays of righteousness may peer over the horizon igniting the world in the blaze of divine glory. During this time, Christians cry out in the words of the Psalmist, “To Thee, O LORD, I call; My rock, do not be deaf to me . . . . Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to Thee for help.” They remind themselves of the words of the prophets to fear not and not lose heart, to be patient in the wrestling, for the Christ child who was born in the struggles of birth will return when the birth pangs appear again. And so, we wait, we strive, we struggle to give birth to this gift of heaven in our hearts as we supplicate the Spirit to hover over us. For Tertullian, this means buffeting God with our prayers for God delights in this kind of violence.

One finds hints of this Advent struggle in the Jazz compositions of Charles Mingus, especially those reflecting his worship experiences in the holiness congregation to which his mother took him when he was a boy. Among those “holy rollers” he experienced the uninhibited cries of people, calling out for the deliverer to come. Mingus recalled that the moans, the trances, and the shout outs were part of the ethos. These holiness folks were in a struggle. In his work on Jazz in the sixties, Scott Saul notes that during the hard-bop era of the 1950s, Jazz musicians like Mingus were consciously drawing on the holiness tradition as a source of inspiration. 

The hints of this Advent struggle are present in tunes like “Haitian Fight Song” and “Moanin’,” both of which draw on Mingus’ experiences in holiness. On “Moanin’” the baritone sax issues the call to order with a low growl that invites the other musicians to join. The song builds with each horn adding a layer of richness until Mingus screams out in words that any holiness or pentecostal will recognize, “Yeah, I know . . . I know.” It’s the “I know, that I know, that I know.” The intuitive plaint that calls out “I know my redeemer lives.” This shout resolves the first act of the song and kicks off the second. Toward the end, there is a second crescendo in which Mingus again calls out, infusing his shout with cries of anguish.

“Haitian Fight Song” is the moral protest to “Moanin’s” supplication. Named after the 1790s Haitian slave revolt, Mingus seeks to fuse together holiness, freedom, and the plight of African Americans. About six minutes into the 1957 version, Mingus’ bass takes center stage as the other instruments slowly recede. For the next two minutes his solo artistry lays out a call for justice. In his own words, “I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is.” When the other instruments return the song hits a pitch that has Mingus screaming in the same way that a holiness preacher can hit a point in the sermon where the inadequacy of words gives way to shouts.

This is not tame music nor does it immediately come to mind for Advent if one is thinking of more liturgical settings. It follows Emily Dickinson’s admonition to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant / Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” The listener must work to hear the message through the hard bop; indeed, the listener must be formed by the music to enter into it.

Mingus’ compositions move from the groans of prayer to the shouts of protest. Prayer, says Mark the Monk, is the mother of the virtues “for it gives birth to them through union with Christ.” While the fullness of grace is already present in believers, they are called to release what they receive. The energies of the Holy Spirit must penetrate every part of the soul as the person actively pursues holiness. This may be why Paul refers to the gifts as “energetic actions” for “the same God energizes all things in everyone.” It is a  harmonization of movements, a synergism in which one struggles to move with the ebb and flow of the Spirit’s actions. Sometimes the Spirit bursts into the conscious mind with such force that the believer sings out in an almost irresistible movement while other times grace recedes into the dark night of the soul to call forth solitary prayer. In all of this the divine pedagogue instructs one how to move with the rhythms of his grace until Christ is fully formed.

At the same time, St. Isaiah the Solitary states that “without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.” The believer must feel the “fight song.” The prophet’s call is the call to repentance for the ruptures of divine shalom, which is why the act of protest follows the action of prayer as the ecclesial and political counterpart to birthing Christ in the soul.

Protest and prayer are part of the pilgrimage to the Christ child. But this is no easy path like the one Nathaniel Hawthorne described in his “Celestial Railway.” In Hawthorne’s tale, Mr. Smooth-it-away guides pilgrims onto comfortable carriages and conveniently stows their burdens in the baggage car. There are no ragged travelers here, chiseled with the virtues of the journey; no, nothing but respectable people bantering about the issues of the day. “Even an infidel would have heard little or nothing to shock his sensibility.” The weary pilgrim can now take advantage of such modern conveniences so that there need be no worry about the journey or the destination. The pilgrimage of purgation and beautification has been traded for cosmetic accoutrements.

In the rush of the season one can move too fast to that Silent Night. As Bonaventure reminds us, tranquility comes at the end of the ladder, when the believer finally possesses seraphim’s wings. Now is the struggle to prepare the way of the Lord by protests and calls for repentance; to move between Mary’s troubled spirit at the angelic visitor and her desire to “let it be to me according to your word.” One day those who call on his name will pierce the clouds and experience fully that final brilliance like the moment of flight when an aircraft glides above the last barrier, the grays give way to sunlight, and all below is a sea of white. There is life and light for the one who conquers. Even so, the Spirit and the Bride say “Come, Lord Jesus.”

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More on: Religion, Advent, hope

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