The past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a library book* about the Great Flood of 1927, when the Mississippi River inundated vast expanses of farmland and towns with up to 30 feet of water, flooding the homes of over a million people in 10 states in the greatest river flood in US history. It is a disastrous tale in which the forces of Mother Nature and the forces of human hubris collided and together created a catastrophe.
The portion of the book that I’ve been reading over this past week has focused on those stranded on the thin knife edge of the top of the Mississippi levee – the highest land in sight – with the churning river on one side and an ocean of flooded flatland on the other, the alluvial fields awash in water that covered rooftops and swept away barns, livelihoods, and lives.
The story of what happened to those who fled to the high ground of the levee – mostly black, mostly poor, mostly powerless – is tragic. As I read this tale of woe this week I was looking forward to the rejoicing and hope of Gaudete Sunday. I wondered what hope would have looked like and felt like for those stranded for days and weeks in such suffering, waiting for food, waiting for shelter, waiting for rescue, waiting for salvation to roll down as mightily as the mighty Mississippi.
I’m guessing that most reading this blog cannot really imagine what those on the levee endured and suffered. I’m guessing most of us live in a warm, safe structure with plenty to eat, surrounded by people who care.
And yet we, too, in our own individual ways, stand on the knife edge of a levee with frightening waters that swirl around us. Perhaps it’s physical illness, perhaps it is an inner anguish, perhaps it is on-going concern for the welfare of loved ones, perhaps it is a deep empathetic sadness with those who suffer elsewhere. So we, too, stand amidst swirling waters of one sort of another and we, too, need rescue. We, too, need hope. And we, too, need to be hope for others.
In some ways, Gaudete Sunday can seem an abstraction. It’s the third Sunday in Advent. It’s time to rejoice. But how do we rejoice on the knife edge of a levee? How do we rejoice in the face of suffering – our own or others? How do we sing a song of springtime in deep midwinter? How do we sing a song of the Lord in a strange land?
Liturgical time offers us a way to sing. In liturgical time, hope rolls down for us, mighty as the Mississippi, even as we stand stranded atop a levee surrounded a flood of concerns and fears. Liturgical time teaches us that even here, even now, even evermore and evermore, the Lord has, and does, and will prevail. The Lord will come. The desert will bloom. The parched land will blossom. The flood waters will abate. Salvation will roll down, mighty as the Mississippi.
Liturgical time offers us the gift of uttering and embodying a reality that is deeper than the reality that we can see. In the bleakness of midwinter, we don a color of spring. At the peak of waiting, we rejoice for that which is not yet. In the foreign land of our suffering, we sing the songs of Zion.
Liturgical time also offers us hope. Just as Mother Nature and human hubris collided and created a calamity, in liturgical time, divine promise and human longing fuse to enkindle hope.
Hope’s natural home is in the gap between suffering and rescue, between midwinter and spring, between desire and promise. It is hope that allows us to stand on the levee and sing, even when fears and concerns and pain surround us like a flood. It is hope that allows us to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Liturgical time always returns us to the Gospel, to the message of blooming deserts and abating floods. It is a message of hope that is mightier than the mighty Mississippi. It is a message to be shared with others who wait on the levee, who wait for rescue, who wait for salvation.
Those of us who have heard the message are to be, like John the Baptist, bearers of the message. We are to sing the song. We are to prepare the way. We are to carry the joyful message of hope, especially to those unable to sing in a strange land, whose human longing has not yet heard the divine promise. We are to carry the message that will ignite hope within their hearts.
The liturgical color for today is not pink, but rose. Rose is subtler, more nuanced, more complex than pink. It’s like a wiser shade of pink, or like pink in a minor key. It’s a shade that knows the complexities of life – both the thorny circumstances of chronos time and the infinitely tender unfolding petals of kairos. It’s a hue that knows how to stand amidst swirling water and sing a song of the Lord.
And so, on this Gaudete Sunday, in the bleakness of a grey and cold midwinter day, we rejoice and sing a song of the Lord. We sing for ourselves, we sing for one another, and we sing for all who stand amidst swirling waters, awaiting a message of salvation, a message of hope that is mightier than the mighty Mississippi.
* The book is Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America by John M. Barry