"And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord;my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children…" - Isaiah 59:21
Ed described himself as a Jewish atheist communist. For good measure, he added with a smile, "And sort of a Buddhist." He was the youngest resident at the assisted living facility. Even with Alzheimer's, he was beloved by all. The women adored him, with good reason. He was handsome, kind, gentle-hearted, and, yes, beatific.
He was a regular at the discussion groups I lead there, beginning as a series titled, "Faith, Justice, and Current Events." Many participants struggled with either memory or hearing – sometimes both. So it was a challenge to stay on topic. We let the conversations meander. And meander they did.
As time passed, Ed's offerings became more of a struggle. His eyes would light up with a thought, but it slipped away. We kept a respectful, eager silence, hoping for a breakthrough, which happened less and less often.
I don't remember what we were talking about one day; it doesn't matter. But Ed became more and more animated. It was a deep thought; I could see it on his face. "Ed, what are you thinking?"
Have you ever seen agony and joy dance on a face at the same time? "I think… I think… I think…," he stammered. The pauses grew longer; the words slipped further away. We all waited, aching for his struggle.
Suddenly, pitch-perfect, in concert voice, he sang. "O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lowly exile here…" We sang with him. Every soul remembered words and melody. The agony on his face vanished, overcome by that beatific smile.
What other song of Advent/Christmas could an atheist, communist, Jewish, sort-of-Buddhist, holy man possibly sing right then?
Ed died not long after this sacred moment. He no longer "mourns in lowly exile here." Hallelujah.
Holy One, Even – or especially - if we cannot name you and get comfy with you, plant your sacred songs in all our hearts. We all need these songs; we mourn in lowly exile. Teach us to sing into your presence. Amen.
Alan Parker is the Pastor of the United Church of Craftsbury, Craftsbury Common, Vermont.