Catechetical Christmas Carols, IV: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
How long, O God… —Psalm 74:10
You don’t need a seminary education to guess that Psalm 74 is an anguished response to the destruction of Jerusalem about 600 years before the birth of Jesus.
Perhaps it was written by a Jewish POW carted off to sweep floors and clean latrines in Babylon.
Or maybe by one of the heartsick, homeless pawns left behind in Jerusalem to weep atop the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem and its once magnificent Temple.
“How long?” is the Psalmist’s plaintive plea. “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?”
“How long?” “How long?” “How long?” The sad complaint of any sufferer pushed past the limit of endurance. That phrase “How long?” appears 58 times in the Bible.
Sometimes God Godself is the speaker: “How long will you people persist in your poor pitiful perfidy? How long before you return to godly ways?”
More often it’s the chosen people themselves who lament God’s prolonged absence and lingering silence. “How long will you ignore us? How long will you leave us to our own meager devices?”
And even today of course it continues to be one of our commonest prayers:
How long before I can laugh again after losing my life’s love?
How long will I have to wait for the results of the biopsy?
How long before I find a job that will support my family?
How long before medical science catches up with the disease that might prevent me from meeting my grandchildren?
How long before I find my soulmate? I want a partner. I want a family. I feel alone.
How long will my family waste away in this Turkish refugee camp?
How long will the Wolverines languish under Buckeye supremacy? Eight in a row! 1–15!
How long? It’s a common prayer for those of us who wonder why God is gone.
And so every Advent we sing Charles’ Wesley’s beloved hymn:
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,
born to set they people free.
In that simple couplet, Father Wesley tells us two things about the one who came down to Bethlehem and will come again. He tells us that is a liberator, but late.
The Messiah is long-expected. God’s people had been looking for him for 600 years when the Psalmist wrote his little lament atop the rubble of Jerusalem 587 years before his birth in a Bethlehem stable.
Long-expected indeed. Six hundred years is a long time, but now he has come to set us free from whatever cripples our flourishing or confines us in narrow, suffocating prisons, whether literal or figurative.
To live into this existential experience of justice delayed and freedom denied I spent some time this week thinking about those three guys from Baltimore released from prison just before Thanksgiving after 36 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
In 1983, a 14-year-old student in Baltimore was murdered for his Georgetown starter’s jacket. The police instantly focused on three 16-year-olds who’d been seen at the victim’s school, but they weren’t involved nor even present.
With no evidence and despite several eyewitnesses who told the police another teenager had pulled the trigger, a jury convicted these three 16-year-olds; they were sentenced to life in prison. I wonder how many times over those 36 years those three teenagers, now 53 years old, prayed the Psalmist’s prayer: “How long, Lord, how long?”
When she took office in 2015, Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby started what she called a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate problematic convictions. These three guys were the seventh, eighth, and ninth people in four years exonerated after false conviction. The average time these innocent people spent in prison is over 20 years.
But we live in a wonderful time. The United States is waking up to the prevalence of shoddy or over-zealous investigations from years gone by. Forensic science is improving, especially because of DNA analysis.
There are about 50 exoneration or innocence projects in the United States today. The University of Chicago has one; also the University of Illinois.
It made me remember my most interesting classmate at Princeton Seminary during my time there. Jim McCloskey was interesting because he was 37 years old when he matriculated at Princeton. The rest of us were mostly 23 or 24, fresh out of college, but Jim had already served in Vietnam with the United States Navy and then became a successful business consultant in Tokyo and New York.
Jim had been raised in a Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia in his youth but had set aside his religion by the time he attended Bucknell University.
And then at 37 he began to think that his existence was flat and meaningless. When he told his boss at the consulting firm that he was quitting to attend seminary, the boss said, “I didn’t even know you went to church.” Jim said, “I don’t.”
All seminarians have to complete two units of field education to graduate. The rest of us all worked in local congregations in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, but Jim decided to become a student chaplain at the Trenton State Prison, where he met an inmate who claimed he’d been imprisoned for a crime he had nothing to do with.
Jim believed him, and when Jim graduated from seminary, he opened a little office in Princeton where he started receiving requests from prisoners who insisted they were innocent. Jim had been trained as a businessman and a theologian and had absolutely no experience as a private investigator but that never stopped him.
Jim named his organization Centurion Ministries. Do you get the reference? Jim’s nonprofit is named for the Roman Centurion who looked at the Carpenter on the cross and said, “Surely this man was innocent.”
Over the last 35 years Jim and his Centurion Ministries have freed 63 prisoners from false convictions.
Do you read John Grisham? Thirty-three novels, 300 million books sold, a book a year since 1991. John Grisham’s latest novel The Guardians is about an Episcopalian minister who devotes his life to liberating the innocent from false accusation. Mr. Grisham says his novel was inspired by his friend Jim McCloskey, my Princeton classmate.
Many of my classmates at Princeton have done some wonderful things, but none as wonderful as Jim McCloskey. He tries to imitate Jesus, who was born to set his people free.
The realities constricting our freedoms are not nearly as dramatic or traumatic as that, or so let us hope, but if you have ever prayed “How long, Lord, how long?” that long-expected Bethlehem child is God’s promise and pledge that God is not gone, and we are not alone. Neither Caesar nor empire nor Herod nor centuries of wrong could defeat him. Not even death.
As Frederick Buechner puts it:
Faith is a way of waiting—never quite knowing, never quite hearing or seeing, because in the darkness we are all a little lost. There is doubt hard on the heels of every belief, fear hard on the heels of every hope, and many holy things lie in ruins because the world has ruined them. But faith waits even so, because he was born to set his people free.
Slightly adapted from Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember (Harper and Row San Francisco, 1984), 130.