It is a season of longing. It always has been.
This is expressed perfectly in the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, which describes the longing in ancient Israel for a Messiah to appear. And it expresses perfectly the longing of the church for His coming, based on a Latin poem from the eighth century and begins like this:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Even in the first century, they had waited a long time, hundreds of years. The prophets had said He would come. And then the angel appeared to Joseph and Mary. And then they waited some more. And then, Luke tells us, “the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Even Linus reminds us of this.
If Advent is anything, it is a time to wait. Four weeks. Four candles. For ever, if you are a child. When my daughter’s family put up their tree on the first Sunday of Advent, my three-year-old grandson Nathan wanted to know if it would be Christmas the next day.
No. We have to wait.
This is the way our family has prepared for Christmas for decades now. We cut a tree on Thanksgiving weekend. We get Santa out of the way on St. Nicholas Eve. We light a candle each Sunday night. And we wait.
Even those who do not observe Advent in any way are waiting. The first decorations in the store, the music in public spaces, the cookies in the bakery, the chatter in the air, the excitement of children—all these remind us that Christmas is coming and we have to wait for it.
Sometimes our waiting is filled with longing, and this is good. All longing teaches of transcendence. Ultimately it’s not the presents or pastries, or even family and friends, that we long for. We long for something deeper. For peace on earth and goodwill to men. For a mystery yet to be revealed. For that Visitation of which our coming together on Christmas Day is only a shadow. Even if our Christmas is lonely, filled with the pain of loss or estrangement, what we long for is the One who will
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
So we light the candles as the shadows deepen, and mark off the calendar as the days lengthen. It’s the Babe of Bethlehem that we long for, for God to come and dwell with us. O come. O come. Emmanuel.
Our longing turns into anticipation. Then it turns into joy. Angels, shepherds, and wisemen. Healing, blessing and strength. The presence of God draws near. He will come. He has come.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee—O Israel.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel was translated in 1851 by J.M. Neale. Each of the verses focuses on a different Old Testament name for the Messiah: Emmanuel, Adonai, Branch of Jesse, Morning Star, and Key of David. The tune derives from a fifteenth-century French Franciscan Processional, adapted to the text in 1854 by Thomas Helmore.