“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” If that spiritual came into your heads as you heard the Old Testament Reading earlier, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, because that’s what inspired the song, which is why I asked Philip to record the snatch of it you’ve just heard. It’s a song that comes from the era of slavery in the USA. It’s often suggested that it was written or perhaps written down by Wallis Willis, a freed enslaved man, but its origins will probably never be known. Like all the best folk songs, it probably grew and changed as it was passed on from voice to voice, because it communicated so powerfully to the people who sang and heard it. Like “Steal away “ it’s thought to have contained coded references to the underground railroad – the escape route for slaves from the South to the North of the USA, but even without those associations, it’s a powerful expression of the longing to be scooped up out of the troubles of the world – and a powerful expression of the faith that that would one day happen. “If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming too” says the last verse.
Swing Low is often associated with the England Rugby team now. According to a very thought-provoking video produced by England Rugby in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, that association seems to have come from it being sung by fans as a tribute to the player, Martin Offiah in the late 1980s. His nickname was Chariots, from the chariots of fire in the story - it was a play on his surname, Offiah… There is lively debate now about how appropriate or not it is for fans to sing it, stripped of its context as a song rooted in slave times, which the video explores. I’ve put a link to the video in today’s newsletter, and I highly recommend it. It includes more about the history of the song, and contributions from a number of Black and mixed race rugby players, including Martin Offiah, who have a variety of views on the song. All agree, though, that the key is that its history should be known and honoured, and have found a new respect for the song as an anthem that can lift anyone’s eyes and hopes in times of trouble. This too shall pass, it says. No matter how bleak life might feel, no matter how others might treat us, we are people of dignity and worth, because we are children of God and he has not forgotten us.
But back to the Old Testament story which inspired it… If you’re not familiar with the background it may be a bit baffling. What is going on here? Who are these people with confusingly similar names – Elijah and Elisha?
Elijah was one of the most important of the Old Testament prophets. He stood up against the despotic King Ahab and his Phonecian wife Jezebel, whose name has gone down in tradition as a byword for wicked women – she brought into Israel the worship of the Canaanite god God, Baal. Elijah challenged their power, and often felt like a lone voice as he did so. It was Elijah who summoned Jezebel’s prophets and holy men, to a contest on Mount Carmel, when his God famously ignited a soaking wet sacrificial pyre with a thunderbolt, while the prophets of Baal failed to raise their god to do anything to theirs. It was Elijah too, who fled into the desert when Jezebel tried to kill him, and ended up in a mountainside cave, hearing the “still small voice” of God which reassured him that his work hadn’t been in vain. In the wake of that incident, God told him to recruit his successor, Elisha, who would continue his work. In the story we heard today, Elisha realises that Elijah’s life and his ministry is coming to an end, and asks that he might have the strength and grace to pick up his mantle. He then watches as Elijah is taken up into heaven in those famous “chariots of fire”, which led to the belief that Elijah didn’t die, but was taken up to heaven bodily.
That in turn gave rise to the conviction that Elijah would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, along with that other great Old Testament figure, Moses.
And that brings us neatly to the Gospel reading, and might help us make sense of its strangeness. Jesus takes his three closest disciples up a mountain – significant things often happen on mountains in the Bible! – where they see Jesus shining with God’s glory, flanked by Elijah and Moses, talking with them. It’s a moment of affirmation that Jesus really is God’s chosen one. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him”, says a voice from heaven, echoing the words that were heard at his baptism.
This story of the Transfiguration can seem very peculiar to us. It obviously stunned Peter, James and John too – so much so that Peter just said the first thing that came into his head when it happened, engaging his mouth before his brain was in gear, as we all tend to do in these situations. But for all its strangeness, this was obviously a very significant story for the early Christians who first wrote it and heard it. It’s included in three of the four Gospels, and in all of them it comes just before Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and starts to head towards the city where he will be crucified. That’s why we hear it on the Sunday before Lent, as we too turn our thoughts towards the end of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
Jesus had looked like an unlikely Messiah from the start – a carpenter from Nazareth? Really? – but it was completely inconceivable that God’s Messiah, his chosen one could be nailed to a cross, dying a deliberately humiliating and disgraceful death, apparently a complete failure. The early church had an uphill struggle to convince anyone that such figure could be God’s Son, that this could possibly be of God, part of God’s plan. They lived in a world – perhaps we still do – where being powerful, or at least looking as if you were, meant everything. The message that a crucified man could have been blessed by God, used by God, even be God, that God could be known in weakness and death was profoundly counter-cultural, as it still is to many today. But that was at the heart of the Christian faith, and for those who had grasped it, it was completely liberating. Like those slaves who sang of their trust in God’s love when those around them treated them as sub-human and disposable, it was literally life-saving, soul-saving to discover that no matter what shame was heaped on you - even crucifixion – you were still of infinite value to God.
We are not enslaved people, but we can all feel that there is no way out, no future, that the weight of the world is on our shoulders, so this message still matters, these stories still matter. They remind us that that God sees us, that God remembers us, that God can lift us up, and that can give us the hope, the energy, the peace which will carry us home, not just after death in a “sweet chariot” but in life too, helping us to look for God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s love right here and right now.