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Faith and Values: Can a weary world rejoice?

Walter Hesford, a guest columnist for FāVS News.  (Courtesy of FāVS News)

Many Christians began celebrating Advent the first Sunday of December. This is a season of hope and looking forward to the birthday of Jesus.

For inspiration and discussion during this season, my church is drawing on “How Does the Weary World Rejoice?” – an online sermon-planning guide developed by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity.

This guide takes its title from a verse in the 19th century Christmas hymn “O Holy Night”: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining till He (Jesus) appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

According to the guide, a French atheist wrote the lyrics of “O Holy Night” and a Jewish composer supplied the music. An American Unitarian minister translated the lyrics into English.

The reason the birth of Jesus may have been celebrated by such an eclectic group is made apparent in the third verse of “O Holy Night,” which also makes clear why, according to the guide, the hymn was popular among abolitionists: “Truly He taught us to love one another His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall be broken for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”

The hope, the dream, was that the gospel of Jesus would bring peace and liberation for all. Thus “a weary world rejoices.”

We live now in a very weary, very unpeaceful world. We are especially made weary, and perhaps cast into despair, by the war in the land where Jesus was born. His birth there is one reason the land is deemed “holy.” Can we celebrate a “Holy Night” when an unholy war rages in this holy land?

I do not have the expertise to discuss the deep roots of this war. One can find helpful commentary on many news sites. One root is revealed by the phrase “From the River to the Sea,” currently associated with the Palestinian desire to regain control of all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. According to the American Jewish Committee website, the phrase is antisemitic.

The origin of the phrase, however, can be found in the Bible’s Psalm 80, portions of which were read this year on the first Sunday of Advent in churches that follow the common lectionary (an annual sequence of scripture readings).

Psalm 80 calls on the “God of hosts” to restore to the people of Israel the land bestowed on them after the Exodus. Envisioning Israel as a vine, the psalmist sings, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. … It set out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the river” (vss. 8 and 11, NRSV).

The psalmist acknowledges that the “nations,” meaning non-Israelite tribes, were the original inhabitants of this land, but he believes these people were driven out so that the Israelites could spread from the sea to the river, making it their promised land.

The Philistines, the tribal people from which the name “Palestine” derives, had been living in portions of this Promised Land since the 13th century BCE. Arab tribes had been living in the territory along with Jews and Christians before the coming of Islam in the early Middle Ages and long before the founding of the modern state of Israel.

So who has the right to this land “from the river to the sea”? It is not for me to say. I have a friend from Gaza who sees what has happened in his homeland as another example of violent Western colonization and racism. I can understand his anger. I have Jewish friends whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust. I can understand why they say, “Never again.”

I would wish for one country where all got along. More realistically, I hope for a two-state solution.

Is hope possible in the midst of this awful conflict? Despair prevails. But thankfully there are still those who work for peace who can’t afford despair.

These include the courageous Israeli and Palestinian members of the Parents Circle-Family Forum. Nina Culver’s Nov. 13 FāVS news story, “Spokane Fundraiser Brings Jewish and Palestinian Cuisine Together for Peace,” drew attention to local efforts to support this peacemaking group.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5.9 NRSV), says the one in whose Advent Christians rejoice.

During this dark and weary Advent season, I will honor them by lighting candles at church and at home.

Walter Hesford was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, where he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group, and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow.

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