Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 19:16-25) transports me to el Teatro-Velasco in the town square of Matanzas, where just 2 weeks ago I was on stage accompanying Yaima Ruffins in a Spanish version of What Child Is This? It was part of the community’s ecumenical Christmas concert, sponsored by the National Council of Churches and organized by the Kairos Center. I was nervous as the proverbial cat, having agreed to play under the misunderstood assumption that it was the Baptist church’s Christmas concert and I would be playing among a small group of familiar friends. I only learned that evening at the time of the sound check that it was in the big theatre and all the churches were represented. It was a bigger hoo ha than I was ready for. At any rate, the song went fine; I was glad we were early in the set list and I could enjoy most of the concert. The only hitch was I had never seen the kind of strap that my friend Lazaro used on his guitar that I borrowed, and I must not have put it on right, because as Yaima launched into the last chorus, the strap came off and I had to catch the guitar on my knee, finishing the song in a contorted pose that made it look like I needed to go to the bathroom. Finish we did, though; Yaima received a well-deserved ovation for her wonderful treatment of the song. I enjoyed the rest of the concert from backstage, sitting with Lazaro and another friend, Harry, who were scheduled late in the program to play with their traditional Cuban group, Agua Viva. The big surprise of the night for me came when Agua Viva took the stage. Their first song was a traditional Cuban carol; but as they started playing and singing the second song, something sounded familiar, and as they got to the chorus I realized they were singing Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered anthem, Hallelujah. It was incredibly beautiful, but startling nonetheless, as I remembered what some of the many verses talk about – the ambivalent faith journeys of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, with sexual references interwoven among honest critiques of triumphant religion. Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah. . . Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you. It’s not a cry you can hear at night, it’s not somebody who has seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah. . . There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah. . . I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you, and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah. Wow, that’s a long way from the Greensleeves melody behind ¿Que Niño Es Este?. But is was so Cuban. The contradictions of Cuba always startle me, and this was no exception. It is a place of holy and broken Hallelujahs, with the ambivalence of love and the struggle to be faithful ever present.
The prophet Isaiah must have startled those people listening in the wings as he sang his Hallelujahs to the God of terror and peace. This is the God of contradictions, who on the one hand would be a terror to the Egyptians, and then make himself known to them as liberator and defender. It’s the God who would smite Egypt with plagues and then heal them. It’s the God who would create a highway right through the heart of the Promised Land so that the very nations who had long terrorized the Hebrew people, Egypt and Assyria, could march through as they traveled back and forth to visit one another. At the end of the day, this is the God who brings a belligerent world together, with all the enemies eventually worshiping in unity at a common table, with nothing on their tongue but Hallelujah.
I should have known this Christmas concert was not going to be your typical pageant with kids in costume. My friend Paco, who shared a welcome and some introductory words to begin the concert, gave fair warning. He began by telling us that Christmas is more than what many think of as beautiful folklore of the Western world, with tradition, memories of home, the innocent joy of the past returning from the nostalgia of times gone by. He quoted the Cuban patriarch Jose Martí, who wrote in dedicating the book Ismaelillo to his son, Son, being frightened of everything, I take refuge in you. Paco said that likewise, in our frightening world of violence and inequality and environmental destruction and terror, we take refuge in the child of Bethlehem. We are here because we recognize that we have lost our innocence, we have lost our purity and tenderness. We have become hardened with the reality of a selfish and materialistic world. We are here because we yearn and dream of a different world. We are here because we need to live with some hope for a different tomorrow. He spoke of Isaiah’s prophetic dream of peace, when stockpiles of weapons would become fossils, when the world would be without domination of some people by others, without fear of terrorist attacks, no schools attacked by crazy murderers. Love and tenderness will reign. . . This is the dream we celebrate today with songs and innocent carols. This is the hope that never dies. Live and open your hearts to the Prince of Peace, who came to tell us “love one another, if your enemy is thirsty, give him drink, if he is hungry feed him.¨ That is the message beyond the folklore and the Christmas tree. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.