Sunday, March 13, 2005

"The Holy City"

Today during Van's message, he referred to the two "next-life" scenes in the movie Gladiator, the first in which the protaginist is a visitor. He returns from his first death experience to wreak vengence. When he dies again, he goes back to that place and stays, having completed his vengeful mission. Van remarked about how washed out the colors were in that idea of heaven; he contrasted those scenes with a vision of a Christian heaven full of rich colors beyond our present comprehension. (He could have said more, of course, about how the protagonist is a sort of anti-Christ, but that wasn't what the sermon was really about.)

I have often thought of the difference between the "Elysian Fields" of Greek mythology, the abode of the blessed at death, and the Christian idea of heaven, an image that I think is much more of a reality than a metaphor, the idea of a holy city.

Palm Sunday comes in a week. As I was growing up in a big, downtown Baptist church full of music, on Palm Sunday Bob McAfee, the choir's top tenor, would often sing Waverly's "The Holy City", to celebrate Jeus coming into "old Jerusalem" on a donkey, with the Hossanahs filling the air. In some other year, the entire adult choir would sing a version of that song arranged for choral music. I just loved it.

To a post-modern ear, the song probably sounds a little hokey. It has a big piano part, with the pianist banging up and down the keyboard, rather like that figure on the Muppets who would pound away at the piano with Miss Piggy squeeking away. And then it has dramatic percussive changes; the dynamics build from a pianissimo to a crezcendo. It repeats the chorus or refrain three times, and the trick for the singer is not to reach a climax until the last time the refrain is sung. The singer simply wants to pound that refrain the first time he or she can get her voice on it. Finally, the song tells a story, a wonderful story about a city that anyone can enter, that has no energy problems, a city that God inhabits with his people, a place that goes on forever.

Think of what it means to have heaven as a city. It means specialization, it means networking, it means friends, it means a sort of time line, it means communication, it means process, it means growth and change without losing the essence of the City. I will take that over boring Elysian Fields any day of the week. Here are the words (but be sure not to miss the very end of this post).

Last night I lay a-sleeping
There came a dream so fair,
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the temple there.
I heard the children singing,
And ever as they sang,
Me thought the voice of angels
From heaven in answer rang.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King!

And then me thought my dream was changed,
The streets no longer rang,
Hushed were the glad Hosannas
The little children sang.
The sun grew dark with mystery,
The morn was cold and chill,
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Hark! How the angels sing,
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King!

And once again the scene was changed;
New earth there seemed to be;
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea;
The light of God was on its streets,
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter,
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night,
Or sun to shine by day;
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Sing for the night is o'er!
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna for evermore!

I also found an MPG of the song, sung by a very Irish tenor. If you go on iTunes and search for "The Holy City", you will see a number of ways people sing this song. But I like the way this Irishman does it, and I hope you do. (Actually, I checked, and the singer is not an Irishman at all. He's a Hobbit. Which is perfect.)

Finally, I get to sing this song in church this coming Palm Sunday, just like Bob McAfee used to do when I was a kid. I am unembarrassed to say that I just can't wait!

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