A smartly dressed, well-heeled crowd pressed their way through a cold December evening in 1851, seeking to find comfortable seats within the warm confines of New York’s Metropolitan Hall. The hype for this event was incredible. It would become part of an annual phenomenon, featuring big and plenteous voices, gathered to sing out the scriptures, as arranged by George Frideric Handel in his oratorio, “The Messiah.”
Departing from Handel’s intent for a modest choral work, The New York Sacred Harmonic Society gathered 300 voices for the evening’s renditions of “And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi,” “O Thou Who Tellest Good Tidings to Zion,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and my favorite, “Comfort Ye My People,” containing the lyrics:
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
So the curtain opened and the sopranos proceeded to sing the melody, “I know that my redeemer liveth,” the basses and baritones belted out notes about nations so furiously raging together, and the tenors intoned tunes regarding the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness.
All the while, cousin Esther was hiding in discomfort in the evening chill of the wilderness somewhere between Northern Tennessee and Kentucky. In such a state of distress, her voice certainly wanted to cry out from the tall trees and untamed brush that hid her but, in fears of certain capture, she dared not give occasion to such utterances.
Cousin Esther was a true believer. Our family’s oral history holds that it was her faith that had driven her into the wilderness. We don’t know the physical, mental, sexual, or theological abuses she may have suffered as a slave in Tennessee, but we assume she longed for an authentic encounter with Jesus, a sacred wilderness experience marked by good news for people in her state of distress.
This represented the dual meaning of the wilderness experience within the culture of captive African Americans. The wilderness was a stop on the pathway to freedom. But in some ways it also became its own type of destination, a place of sacred encounter for those longing for the sweet embrace of justice and liberation. For these faithful souls, the wilderness was very much a waiting room for a new reality, a new life in freedom’s land, and a rightly adjusted theology of the Advent.
While the crowd in New York City fixated on the quality of the voices and the adroitness of the musicians, those gathered with cousin Esther in the waiting room of the chilly Southern floor focused on their reshaping, their transformation and their new measure of faith—the result of meeting with the Christ child.
Esther had no logical reason to believe in Jesus or to celebrate his birth. Her slave owners glibly referenced such things, humming the words of Christmas hymns and carols while proceeding with tortures, rapes, family separations, and forbidding Esther from reading the very Bible of which they so deceitfully raved. Yet, the waiting rooms of the Advent are supernatural spaces where liberating truths pierce the darkness of distorted narratives and unparalleled injustices, such as the Fugitive Slave Laws of cousin Esther’s day or the Roman domination of John the Baptist’s time.
Notes of truth certainly prevailed in Esther’s life, notes echoing the voice of Nat Turner, the mystical wilderness preacher and the John the Baptist of his day. Turner described a wilderness experience where one entered in fear and distress but there found a refuge and promises in encountering and “leaning on de lawd.” His preaching inspired the lyrics of the African American spiritual:
Tell me, how did you feel when you come out the wilderness,
come out the wilderness, come out the wilderness.
Tell me, how did you feel when you come out the wilderness, leaning on the Lord?
Through the attics and crawl spaces along the dangerous routes of the underground railroad, or in the blackness of Kentucky’s woods, the wilderness came to symbolize a meeting place where the faithful nervously waited for their change to come, a place where valleys would be exalted and mountains made low, a place from where they would learn to testify.
I pray that those waiting in today’s wildernesses will encounter the sacred meeting just like cousin Esther. Approaching our borders with their Christian names, their faith, and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, they wait for their change to come. At the same time, well-dressed crowds still gather in comfortable venues to glibly sing and proclaim the promises of advent, all while ignoring or endorsing policies that separate families and force their fellow Christians back to places filled with abuse.
May our hearts and voices rise with the valleys to make straight in this world of deserts a highway for our God—a pathway for the liberating promise of Advent to pierce the menacing darkness of today’s distorted narratives and injustice.