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Psalm 122

Throughout Israel’s history, Psalm 122 has been the song of pilgrims. Families and communities traveled difficult steps and winding paths, climbing up, up, up to the place where Heaven kissed Earth, the Temple in Jerusalem. Along the journey, a pilgrim who lived in Galilee, for instance, would gain 1,700 feet of elevation by the time they reached Jerusalem. A Psalm of Ascent, indeed.

Growing up in the 1990s, my siblings and I had a good many options for entertaining ourselves on road trips. We had Walkman (both cassette and compact disc) and Game Boy (I started with the Color and eventually moved to the SD, and Donkey Kong Country was my jam)—we even had a little TV with a built in VCR and power adapter that made it possible to plug it into the cigarette lighter so that we could watch movies in the minivan.

However, the journey to Jerusalem was not just a family road trip. It was an act of faith, one that was filled with joy, yes, but also risk. Things could go wrong along the way. The unexpected could happen. Or, a member of the family whose health was failing may know that it was the last time she will be able to take the trip to the house of the LORD. Nevertheless, along the way, there were songs to sing. Did the songs of Israel pass the time? Yes. But they also formed a people along the way. The Psalms of Ascent prepared the people for what they were about to experience.

Psalm 122 is one such song.

But what does this have to do with Advent, on this first Sunday of the Christian calendar?

I’m wondering if we might imagine that Psalm 122 was sung by Jesus and his family as they made their journeys up to Jerusalem each year (including that one year that Joseph and Mary lost track of the little Temple-and-Torah-loving rascal). Picture it. The Holy Family, the ones who once took a flight into Egypt to keep their new son safe and lived as refugees in the land of slavery, traveling together again, Jesus now old enough to walk on his own (or lead the donkey himself), going up to Jerusalem. Joseph leads out in song:

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’

Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.”

Mary takes the second part:

“To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.”

Little Jesus, voice cracking, possibly forgetting a few of the words, takes over:

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.’”

They sing together, raising their voices as they press up a steep incline in the road:

“For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”

Now imagine that this didn’t happen just once, but three times each year.[1] Each year the voices change a little. The next year, Jesus’ grows stronger and deeper, another three trips. The year after, Mary’s begins to soften yet increases in power, another three trips. Eventually, Joseph’s vanishes from their company altogether, another three trips. Year after year, the song is sung. The Holy Family keeps on celebrating what their people have celebrated for years: that the LORD has a seat among them, that they get to stand within the gates of that city, that God has kept Jerusalem for Godself for another year.

And in their singing, they pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the city which is to be a microcosm of the whole world, and they vow to seek its good.

Again, I ask: What does this have to do with Advent?

Advent is the time we consider again the coming of Christ. The church in which I was raised focused on preparing for the first coming of Christ, for Christmas. Advent, however, is more forward focused than back. Like pilgrims who keep their gaze toward their destination, we who observe Advent do well to give our attention to the coming of Christ that is ahead of us. With the return of Christ in mind, the Church offers to us Advent as a season of repentance (a chance to “keep awake,” as Mt. 24:42 insists in this week’s Gospel reading).

Repentance may have negative connotations for some. It may taste like a cocktail of guilt and shame and religious manipulation or abuse. But repentance is simply turning around, and, as Wesleyans, of first importance is what we are turning toward. Repentance is not just turning away from sin but primarily turning toward love. The loving thing will never be sinful. So in Advent, we ‘repent’ and turn toward the God who turned toward us[2] in Christ’s first coming and will turn all things into new creation at his second.

But what does Psalm 122 have to do with the second arrival of Christ?

If it is possible that Jesus sang Psalm 122 three times each year on his way up to Jerusalem, then perhaps as he returns to that city for the consummation of all things, he will sing it once more. Perhaps on this first Sunday of Advent, we might reimagine this Psalm of Ascent as a Psalm of Descent. When Jesus comes again to stand on the earth, bringing all of Heaven with himself, perhaps he will he be singing:

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go [down] to the house of the Lord!’”

I grew up with an eschatology that pitted Jesus against the earth: Jesus is coming to suck out those who have remained faithful and leaving the rest to burn. Like it or not, that story has to reckon with the Scriptures. As I see it now, when Christ comes a second time, he will not somehow be a different person than he was at his first. He will still love. He will still forgive (if forgiveness at Christ’s return makes us uncomfortable, let’s remember that in his first coming he made a good number of religious leaders angry by offering forgiveness out of turn). He will still be the always-slaughtered Lamb who doesn’t fight back. But he will also put things back in order; he will be about the work of Shalom. To Jerusalem (as a representation of all created things), Christ will have on his lips:

“For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”

I recently heard a pastor say that some members of his church were praying that Christ would return. He told them to stop because there are people who haven’t accepted Christ yet and praying for Christ’s return means praying for their condemnation. I see the eschaton differently. Psalm 122 helps us to imagine that Christ is coming to seek the peace of the world and its inhabitants, not their destruction or abandonment.

For those who are in the business of oppressing, Christ’s reordering probably won’t be very fun, and it may even sting a little, like a burning and purifying flame. Judgement is not altogether different from love. Love says, “I care too much to let you go on destroying.” Yet even then, and even if the chapter after the Gospel reading is right that the flames are eternal (Mt. 25:41), that does not mean Christ delights in the pain felt by those he will remove from their thrones. What Jesus will do when he comes will always be seeking the good for people and nations and systems and the cosmos. We anticipate this when we sing,

“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”[3]

None of us are qualified to manage or streamline or dissect the second coming of Christ. We all need a boost of humility and to hold our opinions loosely. As we turn our gaze toward his appearing, Psalm 122 invites us to hear Christ singing the song of his people, and it’s a song of peace and joy. I don’t know about you, but I could stand to be quiet long enough to hear Christ sing a song of peace and joy to his Church. Let’s shut up and listen.


[1] See note the footnote on Psalm 122 in The Catholic Study Bible: Third Edition (NABRE), page 820.

[2] To borrow Will Willimon’s repetitious theme from his book God Turned Toward Us: The

[3] O Holy Night, lyrics by John S. Dwight, 1813-1893.


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