One of the things I most look forward to about the Advent season is the opportunity to sing the hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. Unfortunately, I’m often unlucky and miss the one church service where it is on the hymn list! I find myself humming it or singing broken lines to myself – ‘ransom captive Israel’ … ‘dispel the shadows of the night’ … ‘Emmanuel shall come to you’. The words convey a haunting contrast between the darkness and sorrow of the present with a breathless expectation that joy and new life is coming in the future.
Many of the characters surrounding Jesus’s nativity had sorrow to bear: an unmarried young mother facing the rejection of society, an older couple enduring the stigma of childlessness, a group of workers stuck in a dead-end job. These are all the lonely exiles of the hymn, feeling forgotten by God or wondering how to cope with the role that God had given them. To me, the hymn gives a voice to anyone waiting in darkness for the light to break through.
And it does break through. In between those melancholy verses, the jubilant confidence of the chorus reassures us that Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, shall come. Mary will embrace her role as a mother, Elizabeth and Zechariah will have a child of their own, and the shepherds will have the chance to witness an event that will change the course of history. When we call, God will always answer – though not always in the way we might expect.
Advent is a time for us to reflect and wait and prepare for Christ’s birth. With all the bustle of getting ready for Christmas, this can seem a rather difficult task! Moreover, our society’s approach to the festive period does not exactly encourage ‘waiting’; I myself have been resisting the rows of chocolate reindeer in the shops for some weeks. And that is one of the reasons I treasure ‘O come, Emmanuel’ – because it helps me to rediscover a sense of anticipation, a sense that Christmas really is about God coming to be with us.
In a more modern ‘hymn’, Graham Kendrick wrote of the birth of Christ, ’So many centuries of watching and waiting/But when the moment came, well, nobody saw’. From my perspective, a life of faith is often a series of tiny glimpses of God that catch me unawares. It’s easy to hurtle past these moments and miss them, but Advent encourages us to slow down, watch and listen.
I’ll be hoping not to miss my favourite hymn at church this December, but it’ll certainly be going through my mind as I write cards, wrap presents or open my Advent calendar. May God bless all of us with an expectant Advent and a peaceful, joyful Christmas.