I wrote these thoughts two years ago during Advent when dear friends lost a child. I think they are fitting as we are all mourning for those affected by the tragedy of the Sandy Hook school shooting. How do we wait and hope amidst such grief?
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel has always been my favorite carol. I love the ancient chant-like melody and the images it conjures: monks singing by candlelight and waiting to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World while a cold, dark winter lingers on. It has many beautiful verses but the first and most familiar is:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
It is, of course, a particularly fitting verse for Advent when we prepare for the coming of Our Lord. This Advent I have come to understand better what it means because it’s been a dark Advent. In November dear friends lost a child at birth. Their incomprehensible grief and the loss we have all experienced as we miss their daughter we will never have the opportunity to know, made the uncertainty of this life more present. We are not guaranteed lives free of pain, in fact, quite the opposite. We wait in exile. And in exile there is grief. So I have struggled with the darkness of our exile. How do we live in a world of grief, pain, and uncertainty? How do we love those around us knowing that we might lose them? What does it mean to wait for Jesus?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux writes of three advents. One is in the past: Christ was born to the Blessed Virgin Mary when God Incarnate came to rescue the world. One is in the present: now is the time to prepare our hearts for Christ’s dwelling. And one is in the future: Christ will come again in glory. During the Advent season I usually only consider the past Advent, Christ’s Nativity. After all, it’s complete and all that I need to do is remember what has happened and celebrate on Christmas morning what Our Lord has done. The other two advents require more of me. How do I prepare my heart for the Son of God to enter it? And perhaps even more difficult: How can I bear waiting for Christ’s return in exile, amidst grief, pain, and uncertainty?
In the advent carol the first step is to long for Christ. O come, O come, Emmanuel, God with us. We long for Him because we have come to understand the difficult reality of our situation. Until we realize that placing our security in anything of this life is fruitless, we will not be able to long for Christ as we ought. We are captives in this exile and we must understand our helplessness and need of a Savior. I remember Zechariah who was struck dumb during the miraculous pregnancy of his aging and previously barren wife, Elizabeth. Waiting. Yearning for new life as he anticipated the birth of his son, John the Baptist. And ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here… Our exile. It seems very dark. But we have been given a gift, a promise that our exile will not last forever. We have been given hope. And our hope is a Living Hope for it is Christ himself. What makes the darkness and the waiting and the pain bearable is that it will come to an end. Zechariah will speak at the end of nine months. A woman in labor will not be in pain forever. Until the Son of God appear… In the darkness of our exile we wait in joyful hope because He is coming. He HAS come. And He IS here. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. The redemption of the world has happened in the Incarnation, it is happening in us and in the world, it will be fulfilled and completed.
How can we bear our exile? I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I think I am learning that the key is hope. With hope we can say with Lady Julian of Norwich, even through our grief…And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Note that she doesn’t say, “Everything’s OK.” Everything is not ok. She says “All shall be well.” What a difference. All shall be well. Not because our will has been done, but because Our Lord walks beside us in our suffering and he has conquered death with the power of his Love. This pain, this exile is not the final word. At the moment when the Word became flesh, God himself born as a baby in a cold stable with only his Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and the angels to celebrate his coming: that is moment of triumph upon which the whole universe spins. This is is the truth I am holding on to this dark Advent.
Light of the World, though you have never left us, come again. Have mercy and give us hope.
Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy:
Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us;
and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.