Advent: The Season of Hope In Pain
Today, Advent Eve as I write this, I have started to reflect on the reason for the season. Advent that is, not Christmas. Advent is not Christmas. Advent songs are not Christmas songs. Advent is a season of longing and anticipation. It is a season that can be filled with long-suffering and sorrow. This is not long-suffering and sorrow that ends in despair, however; it is long-suffering and sorrow that is consummated by hope. Advent is the season where Christians can cry out to their God for relief and know that he will come and wipe away their tears. This is why Advent is so precious to me this year.
Over a year ago Joshua approached a number of people, myself included, proposing that we choose a few topics to write Advent devotionals on. With the sincerest of intentions I chose to explore some of the themes in the unsurpassed Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” but I never did it. I have always had a feast or famine relationship with writing, but that is only one aspect of my failure. While my flakiness can’t be overstated, and I do sincerely apologize Joshua, life has been hard over the past 18 months. Don’t worry, I am a good Reformed guy (a debated point) and I understand that providence is always good, but sometimes providence is a bitter companion.
Speaking of providence, I am inclined to think that it is providential that I didn’t write about Advent this past year. A year ago I liked Advent well enough, but this year has helped me appreciate Advent in a way that I never have before. It has been a year of spiritual and relational drought. Friends have been shaken to their core and relationships have been scarred and broken around me and there has been nothing that I could do to fix things. While I had a reading partner last year, this year I white-knuckled my devotions for about 6 months and then just gave up. For a number of reasons I have become cold and lifeless spiritually and have grown apathetic. This, of course, is the old man, and the new man, the child of the King, has been torn apart watching myself just surrender to some of the darkest depression that I have dealt with in a long time. This is a post for another time...maybe. I find myself more often than not just spiritually numb. Occasionally there are times of tears, but mostly there is just numbness. And now it is Advent.
I have some stubborn rules about when Christmas music should be played, and Advent music should be played only during Advent. But the past couple of days have been cheat days. I have listened to numerous versions of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” As a stodgy presbyterian, I know that emotional manipulation in modern worship music is bad, but this is not corporate worship and so I can listen to renditions of hymns designed to bring the feels. That being said, I am a stodgy Presbyterian and one of my greatest frustrations with Christian music is the repetitive and shallow nature of much of CCM. When artists cover hymns, it gets more complicated. I absolutely love some of the arrangements that get made for hymns, but the goal is not to explore the hymn as much as it is to craft a certain aesthetic. This isn’t bad, but it means that often there are only 2 or 3 verses that are used in a given song, and I have never heard my favorite verse: “O come, thou Rod of Jesse.” There is so much rich theological content in the hymn, and unless an artist is willing to do a 7-8 minute song with some of their arrangements, they simply won’t sing all the verses. All of that to say, I have spent a few days where my heart was immersed in the song and my head was criticizing the composer. (Phil Wickham and Tarja have my favorite versions at the moment if you’re interested.)
For all the faults of modern composers of the song, without exception, they seem to always include the first verse. The first verse sets the mood for the entire song, so it is of paramount importance that it is included.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
This is a robust verse. It has on numerous occasions brought me to tears as I listen-sing-pray it. It is about a savior who rescues a people from their despair. It is about Israel as they awaited the Messiah who would come and deliver them. This is precisely why this song is not a Christmas song. Christmas is about the birth of Christ. This song is about a people suffering and waiting for deliverance. The Old Testament is the story of Israel realizing this verse. But if Advent is about anticipation, it is as much our estate now as it was then. We live in between the two comings of Christ, and so the church (the Israel of God) sings this hymn with the same anticipation that the church in the Old Testament could have sung it. We are exiles and pilgrims in a land not our own, and we await the coming of the bridegroom to come and deliver us. This is why the song has been made powerful to me recently. This is a song promising that God is with us, that he knows our sorrows, he knows our pain, he knows our frailty, he knows our failings, and he has promised to be with us. He is with us now by his Spirit but he has promised to be with us in glory, and we wait for this hope to be realized. Sometimes we wait with tears. Sometimes we wait broken. Sometimes we wait alone. This is not the end, however. When he comes again in glory, he will wipe away all of our tears. He will heal all of our wounds. He will reconcile all the schisms in his bride. He will set all things right and make all things new. This is Advent. Advent was the period Israel waited for the coming of the God-man in his humility 2000 years ago, and Advent is also the period Israel waits for the coming of the God-man in his glory when he raises his bride to his right hand and we join our Savior in glory in the new heavens and new earth.
Advent means a lot more when you are in pain and waiting for deliverance precisely because that is Advent. It is waiting to be delivered with the complete hope and assurance that deliverance is coming. Because of that hope, we can sing this hymn. Because of that hope, this hymn means so much. I have been playing this song on repeat because this has been a hell of a year. But as I think about the reason for the [Advent] season, this hymn starts to fracture the numbness inside. Next year is not guaranteed to fix everything, and it likely won’t, but I can still sing this hymn sincerely and on days when there is nothing left inside I still have this hope. Because of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, this season of Advent can be endured as the church sings:
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee. O Israel