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Late Advent is usually a time for songs for me. Typically—and in violation of strict church-year protocol—I sneak ahead to steal Christmas carols from their proper future season. Last year I posted here (http://assets.reformedjournal.com/james-bratt/2012/12/21/a-christmas-hymn.html.) about my emerging new favorite, “A Stable Lamp,” by American poet Richard Wilbur. But this year, things are out of sorts. They don’t seem Christmasy, don’t seem ready even for Wilbur’s covered hope. Maybe it’s all the grading I have to do. Maybe is the steady snow and slate grey skies we’ve had in these parts since before Thanksgiving. Or maybe it’s a dour coincidence from a couple days ago.
On the morning news-feed came word of the death of Harold Camping, a Christian Reformed boy who made mega bucks off postwar highway construction in California, then spent much of it on all-too-well publicized media campaigns predicting the end of the world. It would happen then, and then again another time, he averred. He finally closed in on May 21, 2011, and no foolin’. Did I say May 21? I meant October 21. The usual suspects—some of the frightened and the alienated and the guilty and who knows who else—signed on to the scare, and when the big event didn’t materialize, some of them complained to the FCC and Mr. Camping went into temporary seclusion and had a stroke. He came out concluding that the book of judgment had indeed been sealed on the date in question but that the public unveiling of the same would come quietly, at a time nobody could predict. Maybe even like a thief in the night, one might say.
Now the coincidence. That same day I read the gloomiest forecast I’ve seen to date about global warming. (“Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” by Dahr Jamail.) Melting Arctic shelf, disappearing glaciers, warming and acidifying oceans, all the old familiars strains, but then the big one—the likely release of unfathomable amounts of methane from the Arctic permafrost, spiking the mean global temperature by at least 4 degrees C—and ending life on earth as we know it. The sixth mass extinction in planetary history is underway, and our species is part of it. Their food sources and fresh water supplies wiped out, the human race will be reduced to slight remnants huddled around the two poles, trying to keep cool. It all makes Camping’s prediction of seven billion people dying in his end-time disaster sound quite plausible. Who knows, maybe 2011 will turn out to have been the tipping point, the year the books were closed on human folly. Funny, the Christian fundamentalists who tuned into Camping revile the global-warming scenarios spun by eco-radicals, and the eco-radicals, secular to a fault, have not the slightest use, not even ridicule, for the likes of Camping. But they come out at the same place.
So Advent? Christmas? Not on the tip of my singing tongue. Today being the deepest midwinter, the pit of darkness, my mind and my mood go instead to an old Dutch hymn that we used to sing on New Year’s Eve when I was a boy. Right after the congregation’s necrology was read, and after a sermon heavy with the specter of judgment and finality and aspersions upon “the world’s” way of spending the evening in frivolity and laughter. Set against that background, the hymn ain’t bad. Not bad at all. A sense of an ending is there, but so—even more—is God’s “right hand [that] will take us/to our everlasting peace.” For a fidgety boy dying to get out of church those nights, knowing that yet another service faced us the next morning, the lyrics felt solid and honest, and the tune sounded somehow noble and assuring in its steady march up and down the scale.
Now, in a later light, I see an additional irony, and one bit of poignancy. The irony is that the hymn writer, Dutch poet, patriot, lawyer, and one-time mayor of Zwolle, Rhijnvis [Rhine-fish!] Feith (1753-1824), published it in the one of those collections of sacred songs that the forebears of the CRC forbad to be used in the course of worship. (Psalms only, don’t you know.) In fact, they left the Dutch Reformed Church over the issue. The poignancy is that the original English translation by CRC minister and missionary Leonard P. Brink was revised and improved by a great, grand English professor of mine, Henrietta Ten Harmsel. You can find her version as #443 in the CRC’s current Psalter Hymnal. Maybe it will help you, if such you need, get through the darkness of the season.
1 Hours and days and years and ages
swift as moving shadows flee;
as we scan life’s fleeting pages,
nothing lasting do we see.
On the paths our feet are walking,
footprints all will fade away;
each today as we enjoy it
soon becomes a yesterday.
2 But from sin your mercy drew us,
would not leave our souls alone.
Gracious Lord, you did renew us;
in Christ’s death we are your own.
Through the mercy of your leading,
each short step along our way
now becomes a path to guide us
to the land of endless day.
3 Though swift time keeps marching onward,
it will not decide our end.
You will always be our Father,
loving God, eternal Friend.
When life’s dangers overwhelm us,
you will ever be our stay;
through your Son you are our Father,
always changeless, come what may.
4 Speed along, then, years and ages,
with your gladness and your pain;
when our deepest sorrow rages,
God our Father will remain.
Though all friends on earth forsake us
and our troubles shall increase,
God with his right hand will take us
to our everlasting peace.