April 28, 2013

Music and Eschatology, "City of God"

If you don't know this hymn, you clearly haven't been attending Mass. Kidding, here is a youtube rendition.

This morning at Mass, this happened to be the recessional hymn. I was not cantoring today, merely sitting in the choir benches by myself, helping out the new high-school aged cantor by singing the proper melody loudly behind her. It's nice to have support, right? "City of God" has a very catchy melody, and I found myself singing the refrain as I walked back to my car after Mass had ended. This caused a small extra bit of reflection on the words. The verses are nothing special: a collection of Scripture references, in present progressive or imperative. The refrain, though, merits a bit of discussion. For convenience, here is the text:

"Let us build the city of God, May our tears be turned into dancing, For the Lord, our Light and our Love, Has turned the night into day."
[Emphasis added by me, text copyright GIA and all that.]

There are three points of this text that, it seems to me, have a certain weakness in their apparent theology. Each is bolded in the above quote, and I'll deal with them in order. The first is the use of a first person pronoun to describe the construction of the City of God. To talk about this, I think some context for the term is helpful. "City of God" is a Biblical term, from the Psalms as well as Revelation. In the psalms, Jerusalem is the City of God: the place where the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was physically and mysteriously present within the Tabernacle in the Temple in order to be with His chosen people. In Revelation, the City of God is again Jerusalem, but transformed and created anew as the heavenly Jerusalem, God's eternal kingdom which lasts forever. The City of God would later become the title and focus of a 5th century work by Augustine, who contrasted the City of God, both as God's temporal and heavenly Jerusalem, to the city of man. Human beings, according to Augustine, are born as citizens of the city of man, chained to physical desires and in need of salvation. It is only by a direct act of God, through the saving sacrifice of Christ applied to the individual Christian by means of baptism, that any person could be reborn as a citizen of the City of God. In other words, God builds His own city. "Let us build the City of God" is, to that extent, nonsensical - we may as well follow Pelagius and attempt to good-work our way to heaven. Now, granted, we obviously have free will, and God requires of us participation, and all that. However, Augustine, as well as multiple councils, make the following abundantly clear: we human beings, even those of us in the Church, do not bring about God's city or kingdom. God and God alone is capable of such an action.

The second point is relatively minor, and serves mainly as a transition from first to third. The verb choice in the second line, "be turned," is first of all passive, and second of all present tense. The fact that it is passive is a minor qualm: it makes the agent of that action (God, who "wipes away our tears") unclear. The second is a bigger issue. "Be turned" is a present-tense verb. This is where the eschatological problems within the song's lyrics begin. While it is true that God comforts us here and now, it is also true that the holiest saint who shares to the fullest temporal extent in the beatific vision is even still forced to walk through this world until his or her death: forced to travel through this "vale of tears."

The final point is at the tonal resolution of the song, where the melody settles into a comforting tonic chord. "The Lord, our Light and our Love, / Has turned the night into day." God, apparently, has already made everything better, and brought in His own city, so that we can be perfectly happy. First, on a gut-instinct level, this is patently false. While it is true that God, through Christ, has saved us, we're still in the "vale of tears." Our journey from earth to Heaven, by God's grace, is going to be a hard, painful, and intermittently miserable one. Even though we are guided by the Magi's star through the wastes of this temporal desert, and always have the light of Christ before us, we haven't made it to dawn yet. The eschaton is yet to come. To continue in this vein of thought, let's return to the Biblical texts in which God's city is mentioned. As I said before, there are two "Cities of God" within scripture. The first is a physical city: God's home among the Israelites in Jerusalem. The second is the eternal city of Jerusalem, refashioned by God's own hands after the end of time, for God's elect to live and worship in for all eternity. These two biblical Jerusalems allow for an easy distinction: between the "already," and the simultaneously true but apparently contradictory "not yet." As baptized Christians, we are already citizens of God's earthly, temporal city. This City is where we're supposed to be, and it is our duty to cooperate with God in making it a city of justice and peace. This is what the song is talking about. However, the earthly Jerusalem we currently inhabit, the Church, is not our final destination. While we inhabit and toil in this earthly Jerusalem, we "wait in joyful hope" for the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem, where ultimate happiness and union with God will happen fully and unendingly. Until that time, until the eschaton, until the earth we know is ripped apart in fire and whatever else, we live in a temporary copy of that final kingdom. So, no matter how hard we build and cooperate with God, the earthly Jerusalem cannot and will not ever be the ultimate fulfillment of the City of God. We cannot build such a city, and it has not already come about. We have a foretaste of it, we see it dimly, as in a mirror, but we will be left in suspense until God, in His own time, brings us into his everlasting Jerusalem.

Now, I'm not saying that Church's should never play this hymn. It's catchy and inspiring, at the least, despite a few eschatological shortcomings. As long as the faithful think about it, it is fine, and, perhaps, even able to help their prayer. But, please meditate upon the texts of the hymns, and don't just listen while the high-school cantor sings them.



Post a Comment

<< Home