I remember the first time I heard it, what has become my favorite Christmas song.
My dad, who has a background in music and theater, delivered it as a special during a worship service in our church one December many years ago. He walked out onto the stage with no musical accompaniment and just delivered it, those haunting minors resolving into towering majors, lifting mind and heart into the story of God’s redemptive work.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel…
I don’t believe I’d ever heard the song before, but right then it lodged itself into my soul and has never left its place there. For me, the desperate, Gregorian-chanted plea of O Come is the first and last word on Advent. Not only in substance but in style, in both content and form, it taps into the deepest emotions and longings of the human heart. That the great, painful minor keys of our lives would resolve into the towering majors of Christ’s return.
I started paying attention to the liturgical calendar more than a dozen years ago, and at this point in the year, something wonderful always happens to me. Thanksgiving ends, the fall decor gives way to Christmas trees and stockings, and I can feel my gears shift internally. Advent is near…
I love this season. It hits all the right notes for me. Always has.
This year, however, I think I feel the pathos of Advent in a way that I haven’t before. Isaiah’s words strike at the core of my feeling:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you! (Is 64:1)
That is the plea of Advent. Tear open the heavens, O God!
The ancient prophets of Israel gave expression to what is perhaps the most common human feeling–that all is not right in our world, and that the solutions are beyond the reach of mere human agency. And so they lifted their voices and implored the Lord of Hosts to come and make his Name known, to make his glory visible, to put the disorder right. And then they waited… How long, O Lord?
That question, you know–How long…?–is not a request for information. It is an entreaty. An attempt to move the heart of the One being questioned, inciting him to action. When the people of God lift their voices in this way, they believe that they are not floating idle requests for information up to some faceless, heartless, frozen Fate, but to the three-personal God of covenant relationship who has bound himself to us in intersubjective love. Whatever we may believe about this God, if we are thinking and speaking biblically, our lives move him.
That gives me hope. Advent is an annual repudiation of the notion that our God is a soulless, cold-hearted beaurocrat who says, when confronted with our entreaties, “Sit down and shut your mouth. I’ll take care of this when I’m good and ready.” It is, is in its substance, an invitation for us to give our highest pleas to a God who is moved by the tears of his children, because he is by definition and can never be other than deeply personal. God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.
So go ahead this Advent. Let him hear your plea. He welcomes it.
I’ve been giving him mine this year. Over and over again I’ve found my heart breaking and my mind spinning. Riots. Shootings. Floods and famines. The rising tide of moral bankruptcy at the highest levels of government. I can’t tell you how many times those words have been mine:
How long, O Lord…?
When the rioting in Charlottesville broke out this past August, I couldn’t sleep. The images I saw that night haunted me. That level of hatred metastasizing as it did… it wounded my spirit. “This shouldn’t happen in God’s good world,” I thought, “This is an invasion.” I found myself in the middle of the night face down on my basement floor with tears in my eyes and desperate pleas on my lips.
How long, O Lord…?
The claim of the gospel is that in Christ Jesus, the plea has been and is being and will be answered. God is not deaf. He hears. He acts. It’s what he does. The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent tells the tale:
…the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mk 13:24-26).
The older I get, the more meaningful that promise is to me. Jesus says, in effect, “There’s a shakedown coming. When it happens, lift up your eyes.” Just like we recognize the advent of his presence in the bread and the cup, so we are invited to recognize his coming in the midst of the many shakedowns of history. He has not abandoned us. There is hope. He is coming, always coming… always making his gracious reign present.
The invitation of Advent is to believe anew that the evil of our time will not last. The dragon will devour itself. The beast will be cast into the lake of fire. Babylon–every Babylon, everywhere–will give way to Jerusalem. And the people of God will lift up their voice with a shout. Hallelujah!
I, for one, find myself looking afresh for the signs of his presence this Advent. For the many “suns” and “moons” and “stars” being slowly but surely shaken by the coming of the Sun of Righteousness.
When #metoo broke out following the Harvey Weinstein allegations, followed quickly by #churchtoo, I think I spotted it–and am spotting it still, in the many reckonings that have followed.
When the rioting in Charlottesville sparked fresh and ongoing conversations in society and the church on the many ways that racism is still an issue for us, I think I spotted it.
And as the heat turns up on government officials and politicians to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God, I think I am seeing it. Minor keys giving way to major keys. The transition may be slow, but it is real. It gives me hope for the many ways and places where the transition is less perceptible.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel…
Martin Luther King Jr. is famously and often quoted as saying that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That saying is put to use not infrequently by those eager to find in Dr. King a champion for their favorite cause social or political cause, and I think that in so doing its theological grist and foundation is often lost. The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice only because God so bends it. By itself it certainly does not. It cannot. By itself it bends towards its own dissolution–the very shattering of morality and meaning. Entropy is the “natural” trend of the universe, not justice.
But in the hands of the God made known in Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of the human story, the universe finds her proper Lord, and her arc indeed begins to bend in praise to him. It may be long in bending, but it is sure. And our call?
“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ” (Mk 13:37)
It is easy during these dark days to give way to cynicism, apathy, and despair. To live in an eternal minor key with no hope of joyful resolution. We must not. We cannot. If Christ is indeed risen from the dead, then he is Lord and God and his presence in history and the promise of his fully manifest presence–what Christians call his “return”–are sure. Our job is to stay awake. To wait, and watch, hoping to catch appearances of him, glimpses now and then of his as-yet-hidden presence before that Day when he shall come again, publicly, in glory to judge the living and the dead. And his kingdom will have no end.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!