Between working from home, basic hygiene, nourishment needs, relational needs, the holidays, oh…being pregnant, a one-year old, volunteering…yeah, I don’t seem to have time for my writing luxury these days. I have missed you all! Thanks for being patient and following along these ponderings with me. True-to-life is the nature of them, so true-to-life is the nature of their frequency as well, I suppose. Well, enough ado. O Come, O Come…
You may notice the title post as the beginning to familiar Christmas hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. During the season of advent our church sings this as the opening hymn every week. It is good reason to get out the door on time! It moves me every week, by Saturday midday I find my soul beginning to salivate for the processional when the crucifix moves by followed by the a cappella voices raising this praise. If you have ever heard this song, particularly live, however, you may recall the somber tone is carries. It is deep and guttural at points. Half of the words in the third line are “mourns”, “lonely”, and “exile”…yet the refrain every time: “Rejoice! Rejoice!…” The range of emotions in this song captures the way I feel this advent season.
The first Sunday of advent I was moved to tears during this song; I had caught the eye of an older friend in our church. After years of a good battle, now in hospice, she was attending church pushed in a wheelchair by her husband. The beauty deep within her eyes has always captured me, it did that morning as well.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Captive. Mourning. Lonely…Words apt for the pain one must feel in such a place terminal waiting.
By the second Sunday of advent I had spent the week praying for a family in our church who just delivered their stillborn daughter; she was just a bit older than Jonan when he was born. Her mother birthed her on the same floor of the hospital I birthed Jonan. My heart ached as I remember those walls, resounding with so many tears…generally that of newborns. But not that day. As we sang that second week the words pierced deeper still:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Satan’s tyranny. Depths of Hell. The grave. Yeah, that fits when one finds that grave too soon. And if we are really honest, doesn’t that feel like all whose graves we visit? Never is there enough time. Our hearts ache for more. Always more. Free thine own, we sing…give them victory o’er the grave. As I have written before, this is either great naïveté, master delusion, or it is real Hope.
The third week of advent, this last Sunday, even the drive to church felt like my heart of just ounces was carrying the tonnage of the van I was driving. My dear friend’s father passed away as she arrived at the airport, hopeful exchange final words with him. So long since they had been face to face. News to break one’s heart. Then, the next day:
Friday I watched the unfolding story. Restless sleep, awake praying for families desperate for a time machine. Saturday I checked in for updates. Tears I couldn’t withhold. God, now? Families forever marking their holidays with tragedy? It’s gruesome. Bloody. Sick. Angering. Incomprehensible. And I knew I would have to sing that song again that Sunday.
And we did:
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Death’s dark shadows. Ugh. Dark, gloomy, clouds of night. Yeah, that might scratch the surface for these families. Cheer hardly seems to be on the agenda for their future, as I imagine they fear.
But every time, every verse…Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. The writer holds little back to the misery we all have known in our lives in one way or another. And in our human scales we could say some have known it more than others. But we all know…pain is pain is pain. It pulls us inward, it breaks us fresh, is causes us to question so many things. The interesting part of pain is when it is not us, we sort of want to shield it and keep our happy lives, our happy lives. It is uncomfortable to turn on the television to aerial photos of law enforcement surrounding an elementary school reminding us that even if our little worlds feels good today….all the world is not good today. And when it is our little world struck with pain, it becomes easier to be self-righteous in our pain. All these happy people, they don’t know pain like I know pain.
Pain is not easy to deal with, and even more difficult around this time of year. Our culture offers little in this way. Remembering is meant to bring someone close, in a sense, like we do with the Eucharist, Do This In Remembrance of Me, but by the very act of remembering we must face the reality that we have to remember…because they are not here with us. Then we come to a song like this. Like many of the Christmas songs we sing on the radio or in a group somewhere yet miss the depth of meaning for the familiar tune. This song captures the heart of a God who knows, a God who will (and now has) enter our pain. A God who, amazingly, not only wants to free us from captivity…but IS ABLE free us from captivity. The captivity of death, pain, sin toward one another, toward ourselves, apathy, hatred, gluttony, sloth, oh the list goes on. This is not another god we cannot simply be content with as one god among many…depending on your personal choices because basically all the gods people follow are the same. I hesitate to sounds so brash, but, my friend, they.are.not.the.same. They are not the same and even a brief comparison reveals this. Find a song like this one about any other God. That contains any historical facts within it at all. And let me know what you find. Find a god that came among us, helpless as a newborn, yet triumphant as a King, able to bridge the great divide of a chasm that (still, at times) feels un-bridge-able. But this little King, He is able. This God who came near. Emmanuel. And he offers us a place for all the tragedy and all the pain and all the good and all the confusion to come together. He gives us a Narrative that explains it all. No, it doesn’t wrap it all with a nice bow, but it does help make sense of the senseless in a time when we seek understanding.
But lest we think this God does not understand pain. Or this is a God that calls us to forget our pain because there is something greater, please, think again. How can the Man of Sorrows also be the one for whom we sing “Rejoice! Rejoice!…”? It is one of those dichotomies of this Kingdom of God’s. Paul writes in 1Thessalonians 4:13 “we do not grieve like…[those] who have no hope.” Too many Believers have used this to abuse those who grieve. They offer meaningless quips of “comfort” that diminish real pain for a “hope” that supposedly causes us to forget that we have real hearts on earth that ache in real ways. One author puts it this way, referencing the verse above:
Paul…was reassuring us that the sorrow we experience in this world is mingled with the solid hope that sorrow won’t have the last word. Somewhere along the line, however, his words have also come to mean that, in some sense, we sorrow less than others. Somehow, because of our hope, we are supposed to rise above our losses. Some believe it is a sign of spiritual maturity not to burst into loud sobs at a funeral or to lose sleep over the plight of [those oppressed] in the world. We should smile bravely, hold our heads up high, and show the world the difference faith makes in the face of grief.
I think, instead, perhaps the difference between how we and the world sorrow is that we sorrow more, not less, and in our sorrowing we are entering in some mysterious way into God’s sorrow. We grieve individual losses, estrangements, prodigals, broken-down lives, the shattered dreams; he grieves a world of losses, a world of shattered dreams…His is the distress of a master craftsman over a masterpiece destroyed- for the way things are is not the way he meant them to be. As we grow in likeness to Jesus, we will be gripped by the same sorrow over what is wrong in this world and over our part in it, and we too will weep.
She continues on…
…But God didn’t give up on his vision. Instead of washing his hands of us, God pursued, and continues to pursue…Trillion dollar bailouts to rescue a flagging economy are nothing next to what God has expended to recover [us]. God himself is leading the rescue effort.
I won’t attempt to add much to her eloquently stated words. That scripture above does not stop at “we do not grieve” but goes on… “as those who have no hope”. So I offer in this pondering that if you are grieving, your loss or for another’s loss, and it seems ill-fitting in this advent season…it is not. This is the season that marks our safety to grieve in the arms of a God who came to us. A God who knew our pains before any of us were even conceived. And for those who have lost their loved ones, their parents, friends, babies…let’s remember together that the oft quoted “spirit of Christmas” is not believing in Santa, angels, or some sort of “magic”, but it is the spirit of Christ. And only in Him is there space for all of us who grieve and all of us who are joyful. There is room.
The song continues:
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Home. Make safe. Close the path to misery. Not many dispute the longing for these things. Too many furry about this season, souls’ ablaze with confusion and restlessness seeking to create magic for someone or missing a magic that they once knew. Let’s instead seek what the Magi sought… Emmanuel, the one and only God With Us.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.