One of my favorite Christmas songs is Selah’s O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It’s all mysterious and dark and heavy.
(So, exactly opposite of what people love most about Christmas.)
It sings deep notes of suffering and waiting and captivity, with a tiny sliver of light that bursts into rejoicing in every chorus. But not even rejoicing because Jesus came right there in the song. It’s a rejoicing because He will come. He’ll come and disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and put to flight death’s dark shadows. He’ll bring victory and save everyone and we’ll all be winning!
But right now in the song? Israel waits. In either exile or slavery, hungry and grumbly, and cold? I think, yes, they must have sometimes been cold.
This is why the Advent is so fascinating to me. Because right in the middle of all the candle-lighting hope and anticipation is lament. In my Advent book, Enuma writes, “In its peculiar way lamenting is an act of faith because it speaks to our understanding that things are not as they should be.”
Almost nothing is as it should be. Families, bodies, the earth’s temperature, justice, my humidifier which has dumped a couple gallons of water all over my floor three nights in a row…
And so we wait (most days) in full belief that God will show up and fulfill his promises. In fact, Enuma writes, the reason we are called to wait on God during Advent is because God always shows up.
He has done this for me time after time, and I continue to be the worst at waiting. Also, suffering. I would never have made it as an Israelite. I’d have been that a-hole in the back whining first for food, then complaining about the manna (God, we just had this yesterday), then wanting to go back home TO SLAVERY because I’m too short-sighted and anti-suffering to understand things like the promised land, which lay just around the corner. Everyone would be blaming me for the entire 40 years.
And so acknowledging my own lament and then lighting a candle that physically demonstrates patience and hope and the belief that God will show up feels like a sliver of light that bursts into a dark and gloomy nothing-is-as-it-should-be world.
Nothing makes me say Come, Lord Jesus more than drunk phone calls from my brother. We’re a disheveled bunch, held together by thin threads with giant gaps at the seams and stuffing falling out all over the place. It’s not a coincidence that Christmas is when all our stuffing falls out, by the way. With all the expectations and Christmas-movie-merriment trying to work around divorce and mileage and scheduling and kid-sharing, with a drug addiction or two thrown in for good measure some years, plus a case of Coors Light. If you’ve known me for a few years, you’ll remember my spoofy Holiday mailers in ’05 and ’06 about the magic of watching Mortal Combat III with my brothers on Christmas Eve by the light of a 4-foot fiber optic rotating tree at my dad’s while the toast burned. Anyway, disaster, is what I’m saying.
(Which is so opposite my in-laws, it’s comical. Last year J’s family talked through how we would all feel if our gifts to one another were supporting various charities instead of gifting and opening actual things. I personally love selecting and wrapping the perfect gift, and so my sentiment was equally Great Idea, and Oh. This happened to be the same year my brothers all called one-by-one wanting to cancel Christmas because everyone was in a tight spot and felt they had nothing to give.
I was like: I got it! Why don’t the Hartmans gift to the Wilsons?!)
Come, Lord Jesus.
And it’s not just us. I have friends who will be running in circles collecting their own handfuls of leaked-out-fluff. Friends who are not in relationship with one parent or the other, or who will be celebrating their first Christmas without their brother or mom or six-year-old or never-was-year-old, who will be lamenting the unfairness of breast cancer, or trying to keep uncle out of the liquor cabinet. Someone I know will inevitably spend Christmas Eve at Taco Bell.
And so as we stuff each other’s fluff back in, and we find the brother out in the cold somewhere addicted to something and beg him home, and narrow down that perfect hour when all three nieces are available despite their sugar comas and other families, and we manage double the amount of parents, step-siblings, grandparents and ex-wives than normal, and we overlook past resentments, and we choose to open the doors for each other instead of closing them, and we mourn those things lost among us and the ones that never were, and we agree to focus on something other than the brokenness for just a minute: we light a candle.
The flame will represent equal parts lament, waiting, and hope.
Things are not as they should be, we’ll say. But we are waiting for God to show up. We believe he will, and we sure hope he restores everything.