I write this as I’m sitting in my parents’ living room, half-watching Elf on TV, after leading one Christmas Eve service at my church, attending another with my fiance Lauren, and waiting to attend midnight Mass with my mother and sister. And I find myself questioning, more this year than I have in previous years, what in the world this season is all about. Cliche, I know. That question is being answered everywhere in my blogosphere. I’ve even tried to answer it over the last few weeks. But beneath it all, there’s been a questioning about why in the world this season is such a big deal.
Now, rationally, I know why the questioning is happening. Last year was my family’s first Christmas in Findlay. I graduated college in May, moved out of my parents’ house into my own place-my church’s parsonage-in June, began my journey in seminary in August, and got engaged a few weeks ago. That’s a lot of life change since last Christmas. None of it is bad. But it’s a lot. When so many common elements that used to define the Christmas experience for me have changed or disappeared, slight (or more than slight) aimlessness ensues.
But for real, what’s going on here? Biblically, the event of Jesus’ birth isn’t a huge deal. 2 out of the four Gospels don’t record it at all. Historically, it wouldn’t have happened on December 25, on a cold winter’s night that was so deep. The Gospels that do record Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke) tell the story in such a way that the birth of Jesus is an event that strikes fear into the hearts of the established political authorities, upsets the economic situation of the day and challenges the social structures of the culture. Why, then, do so many of our contemporary Christmas practices simply maintain the status quo of consumerism, pour money into the pockets of the rich, and pressure the not-rich to spend more money than they ought to? What do cheap colored paper and blow-up Santas have to do with the almighty, all-powerful, everlasting and transcendent God crossing the divide between the earthly and divine and becoming human? This I cannot understand.
One hymn/carol has been sticking out to me this season. It’s not a Christmas Carol (because Christmas only starts tonight/tomorrow/today depending on when you read this-up until now, it’s been Advent, darn it). But it’s a gorgeous Advent hymn with an ancient melody-O Come, O Come Emmanuel, set to the tune of the chant Veni Emmanuel. Its lyrics encapsulates the longing, waiting, and anticipating that we are called to do throughout the season of Advent. (I know, it’s Christmas now. But we’ll get there) They call for God to be with humanity, to bring release to captive Israel who mourns in lonely exile, for the Rod of Jesse’s Tree (a title for Jesus) to save humanity from the depths of hell and give us victory over the grave, and for the Desire of Nations (again, Jesus) to come and bind all of our hearts together as one, bidding our sad divisions to cease, and rule as our Ruler of Peace.
For today, it could be a call for God to come down and rescue the church from our love for ourselves and our own institutional perks and processes that hold us in exile from a world full of people who desperately need what we offer; a call for God to free us finally from the prisons of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and fear; a call for God to end war and plague, reverse the damage done to the environment, and lead us to our intended place in the Created Order. I long for all of these things to become a reality. I long to witness the future work of God where God brings about the good things waiting for us and brings the whole world into real, full, and true life. I long for the day when I won’t have to worry about hurting myself or anybody else anymore; the day when I won’t have to worry about screwing up again. I long for the day when I can finally be in relationship with other human beings and not feel the separation of guilt or shame or fear or jealousy; I long for the day when I get to see God face to face and all of this becomes a reality.
The longing is what Advent is all about. (Again, we’ll get to Christmas here) But that’s just the thing. I long for it. It’s not a reality yet. So I’m just waiting now. And waiting sucks.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel speaks of this longing in more beautiful poetry I could ever think of. But deeper than the words; the tune itself expresses this longing for God’s good future. The verses plod on with almost ceaseless motion (depending on how your pianist/organist plays it), but they’re not upbeat. The verses of this hymn just trudge steadily along while singing of this longing and crying out for God to come and be with us. It’s as if the very contours of the melody and the steady, monotonous, and pervasive beat are saying that the object of this longing, God’s good future, will be a long time coming, so stamina and persistence are required. Cry out your longing to God…but don’t expect a quick response. We’re in this for the long haul, so this crying out will simply become a part of our daily lived-out existence, trudging along through the life we’ve been given.
But then we have the chorus. As you may know, the chorus is the part of the song that repeats after every verse; the words for each verse change, but they always return to the chorus, which stays the same.
The words for the chorus are simple:
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel
As each verse trudges on into the chorus, it’s like the steps of the travelers, plodding on in their journey and crying out for God to be with us, falter, and their monotonous journey, toward a hoped-for future where their deepest longings will be fulfilled, pauses for a minute on one…simple…word.
Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.
In the midst of the trudging and plodding of a traveler’s day to day existence, filled with longing for suffering to cease, for hate to end, and for peace and justice to reign, the traveler comes upon the word “Rejoice.”
And it’s as if all motion ceases, all pleading and crying out pauses for a few seconds and the traveler hears a Word from God: Rejoice. I will come to you. Your deepest longings will be satisfied, the world will be set aright. What you hope for will become a reality. You can count on it. You can be sure of it.
Maybe at Christmas, we remember that we do indeed have a reason to rejoice. At a distinct concrete point in the history of the world, God did indeed come down and put on human flesh. The eternal, everlasting, all-powerful God become a weak and fragile human being and walked our dirt and breathed our air. Maybe at Christmas, we remember that God came to us in the most intimate way possible, as a baby in a mother’s womb-birthed, fed, changed, burped.
Maybe we remember this every year because we need this time to pause in the midst of our plodding and our trudging on through the muck of the world and our lives in order to rejoice.
God has come to us. God is currently with us. God will always be with us. In the most intimate way possible, in the exact way you need. This is a reason to rejoice in the midst of suffering, pain, fear, guilt, shame, or even just annoyance at the family members you’re supposed to spend time with over Christmas.
So this season (which has only just started), take a cue from this hymn. Pause your plodding and trudging. Pause your cryings-out
because God has already come, God continues to come to us, and God will always come to us and is even now currently with us. That simple truth may not be an answer to every question, it may not satisfy your deepest longing, it may not bring truth and justice and peace to reign in the world. But it’s a step in the right direction.