[Jesus said,] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the liturgical calendar, this Sunday is the pivot: it’s the first Sunday of Year C, the first Sunday of four-week Advent, and the balance point between wistful longing and joyful hope. The lectionary is full of hope and dread all mixed up together as Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple and the coming of the Human One (the Son of Man). The disciples are confused: how are they supposed to wait patiently and hopefully in such an overwhelming time? Enter “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” a spiritual about keeping alert amid distraction, danger, and exhaustion.
Like “My Lord, What a Morning,” this song is an African American spiritual, but its authorship is harder to trace. It was probably written by a group of people singing and improvising together, refining the words and music as they sang. Its text, which urges singers to keep alert for a coming time, may point to its origin among enslaved people, who often used hymns and spirituals as coded communication less likely to be intercepted by their captors. “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” may have been used to communicate escape plans. After abolition, the spiritual continued to inspire worshiping communities with a promise of true, complete freedom.
Like many spirituals, this one contains multiple scripture references across different variations of the text. It teaches biblical literacy through song. The text of the first verse, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” is a reference to Matthew 25, the story of the wise and foolish bridal attendants awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom, but its general reference to watchfulness works well with this week’s gospel from Luke, in which Jesus urges his disciples to watch for the unfurling leaves of the fig tree. One version in current use has verses about “darker midnight lies before us” and “lo, the morning soon is breaking” (All Creation Sings), while another has verses about “we are climbing Jacob’s ladder” and “every round goes higher, higher” (New Century Hymnal). Still another refers to “Christian journey soon be over.” All versions allude to Hebrew Bible texts and New Testament theology. Experienced church musicians will notice that the notation of the hymn varies slightly between versions as well, a side effect of trying to transcribe music originally intended for oral transmission.
“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” teaches us how to wait for a Christ who will overturn injustice and bring a renewed creation into being: patiently but attentively. The steady rhythmic beat of the music, pulsing like footsteps, leads singers onward. It provides focus and communicates commitment. As we wait for Jesus on the turning-point day of Advent, we focus on what matters, and we move forward together.
Bulletin version: “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” is an African American spiritual that may have been written by enslaved people and used originally to communicate escape plans. It urges singers to be watchful and focused on Jesus, just as Jesus tells the disciples to pay attention to the leaves of the fig tree to predict the nearness of summer. The steady beat inspires courage and forward motion in difficult times.
Resources: You can learn more about this hymn in this episode of PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, “African-American Spirituals,” available with transcription: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/05/04/may-4-2012-african-american-spirituals/10896/