When John Came A-Wassailing

So here it came a singing toward us, the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of Joy. As I looked at the lectionary texts for the week, it was easy to pick up the theme of joy. Well, it was easy to find joy in the first two readings anyway.

The first reading was from chapter three of Zephaniah. I think we only hear from Zephaniah maybe once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s worth waiting for. Did you hear that marvelous line in verse 17? “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” What a picture!  Have you ever imagined God singing about you? To you? I sing to my dog sometimes just because he makes me happy. He seems to like it.  It’s kind of fun to think of God singing about us, to us, like that. So there’s some joy. That one was easy.

And then came the second reading from Philippians, that wonderful passage from St. Paul’s love letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice!” Well that’s pretty clear, too. So okay! Right there in those first two texts I’ve got plenty to work with to lay the groundwork for Gaudete –Rejoice- Sunday.

But then comes the Gospel reading from Luke 3, and, frankly, John the Baptist kind of sucks the wind right out of rejoicing. “You brood of vipers.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “The axe is at the root.” “The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.” Yeah. That’ll take you right to your happy place.

So I’m thinking about these texts and about Rejoice Sunday and about trying to tease some joy out of grumpy old John the Baptist, and in the middle of all that I found myself thinking about… wassailing.  What can I say?  It’s that time of year.

When the pagan Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in the middle of the 5th century, they brought with them the tradition of wassailing. Wassailing, of course, eventually became Christmas caroling, but it started out as something very different.

The word wassail comes from the Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl which means, “be thou hale” or “be thou healthy” or “be thou well.” At their celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Anglo-Saxons would go out into their orchards and sing to their cider trees, their apple and pear and cherry trees, to wake them up from their winter sleep and to encourage them to be healthy, to produce good fruit so that they could have a plentiful harvest of good cider. “Wæs þu hæl!” they would sing. “Be thou healthy.” And it occurred to me as I thought of all this, that this is kind of what John the Baptist was doing as he was preaching at the Jordan. He was wassailing. He was singing out that it was time to wake up and be healthy. So maybe there is some joy there somewhere between “You brood of vipers” and “the chaff will be thrown into the fire.” Or at least a calling to joy.

With all that in mind, I began to re-imagine my picture of John preaching by the Jordan. Instead of seeing him as a voice of foreboding, instead of hearing him cranky and impatient, I imagined him singing. I imagined him wassailing to wake the people. So I decided that this was what I would do in my own orchard, my own parish, on this third Sunday of Advent. I wassailed to them.  I sang to them.  And it went like this…

When John Came A-Wassailing

In the fifteenth year of sovereign rule of the Emperor Tiberius,
In a time of ruthless potentates and wrongs both small and serious,
The Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,
And he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.
I am just the song that sings out where our paths are intersecting.
I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!
He is the Maker of all Music and I am just one simple song.”

Like a wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,
The song of John cut through their crust and brought them to their knees
As they heard a new reality and began to realize
That the reign of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,
And immersed them in the cleansing flow of forgiveness and repentance,
And his song filled up the wilderness with a Word to spear the heart
Until the crowd was all convicted as their masks were torn apart.

He sang, “You children of the covenant, you children of the promise,
You children of the circumstance and times that are upon us,
All you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,
Are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,
All you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,
Yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition
But that’s not enough to save you from your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?
Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?
Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!
If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”
And he said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,
For the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change the way you think and see each other,
Now’s the time to change the way you treat your sister and your brother,
Now’s the time to change your heart and mind and show it by your fruits
With more honest and more decent and more generous pursuits.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,
And give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,
Don’t take more than what you’re meant to take, don’t lie, extort or cheat,
For the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift us all like wheat.

“Yes, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance
For you’ll reap the harvest that you’ve sown, you’re writing your own sentence.
Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,
So will you produce good cider? Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.
Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?
Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table
Or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–
Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’
For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place
You have another chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,
For one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!
For the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse
To change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits
With more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

“For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.
Yes, the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.”

—–

So now as the lights of Advent, hope, peace, joy and love light your way to Christmas, Wæs þu hæl!  Be thou hale.

One thought on “When John Came A-Wassailing

  1. Thanks Steve, I needed to be spurred on through my time of lethargy and complacency. I’ll become a doer of the word, not just a hearer. I am thus inspired by your song. Oh, day full of GRACE!!!

    Went to St. John’s in Orange this past Sunday for their Christmas concert. Awesome! You’d have enjoyed it, I’m sure.

    Godspeed and merry Christmas!

    Like

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