Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

It's four years now since our parish (and the rest of the English-speaking Church) started using the new translations at Sunday Mass. For the most part—whether people greeted the new language with enthusiasm or dismay—we've settled in. Even the parishioners who show up only on Christmas and Easter are used to it by now.

Happily, we're still exploring the vast treasure house of riches that is the new Lead Me Guide Me hymnal (which came out at the same time). Nearly twice the size of the 1987 edition, Lead Me Guide Me is, as a former pastor liked to say, "unashamedly Black, unapologetically Christian, and specifically Catholic."

We're especially benefiting from the work of contemporary African-American composers like Kenneth Louis. Take, for example, his Advent hymn, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." It adds a depth and richness to the congregation's meditation on the meaning of Advent and the Lord's coming that's not found in some other settings of Isaiah 40.

Building roads is a massive undertaking.  In the ancient world, it was the work of empires and conscripted labor.

So the Isaiah 40:3-4 text—

A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD!

Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!

Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low;

The rugged land shall be a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.

—isn’t expressing, in its original context, a happy-go-lucky kind of sentiment.

Isaiah’s liberation to the captives implies woe to the captors. A year of favor and forgiveness of debts comes as a boon to the indebted…but a crushing loss to the lenders.

Part of the genius of Louis’s “Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord”—and in particular, this performance of it by the choirs of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church and the UCSD Newman Catholic Community—is the way it conveys the foreboding and unsettling power of God’s coming.

You can hear it in the dark and ominous opening piano chord, the rattlesnake gourds and tambourines, the wordless, pulsing beat of the choir (echoing generations of prison work gangs), the eerie, jazzy guitar fills. Even after the song reaches its joyous climax (at 4:36) and the congregation bursts into applause, the choir and musicians don’t let it end on that moment of cheap grace.

They bring it back to the rhythm and hums of the wordless, nameless workers doing the hard and necessary work of preparing the way, building the road, remaking the landscape for the acceptable day of God’s coming. Prepare ye the way of the Lord indeed.

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Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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