Advent begins this week and marks a time when the Christian church prepares for the birth of Christ.  Celebrating Christmas is common in Western cultures, and beyond, regardless of religious affiliations.  We prepare for this holiday in all sorts of ways.  We decorate our homes, listen to our festive playlists, watch our favourite seasonal movies, attend concerts, buy gifts, bake special treats, gather with friends and loved ones. There is much to do, much to get ready.  It is an exciting time and one that many of us treasure.

As I was thinking about which hymn to look at this week, I was actually mildly surprised to find that we had arrived at Advent again.  There is something about the past years of pandemic time that leaves me wondering where we are.  It doesn’t feel like this state of strangeness we’ve been walking through started very long ago, and yet it feels like it’s been forever.  For many of us, this may be the first almost normal Christmas season we’ve had in three years.  For some the pandemic is a distant memory, for others it is an ever present concern.  We are in many different places.  Preparing for something becomes unusual in this context.  We need to accommodate those who are excited to reinstate all their traditions, while caring for those that remain cautious, and sometimes bound by fear.  The balance of this preparation is challenging.

O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.

O come, the Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here.Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

O come, thou Wisdom form on high, and order all things far and nigh.To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in thy ways to go.

O come, desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

When I read through the words of this haunting hymn written more than six hundred years ago, I was struck by the clear understanding of the contrasts to be found in our communities, our world and our hearts.  We are lonely, in exile.  Trapped, yet aware that there is a way out. We are overwhelmed with darkness and death’s threat, but can see the possibility of daylight cheering our spirits. We are aware that wisdom can guide and that the peace found in working together can put an end to our quarrels.

Preparing to celebrate anything requires us to acknowledge the challenges that we face each day, the challenges that may never cease.  Celebrations that attempt to eliminate these challenges can feel quite thin and a bit artificial.  These words and the sombre music beautifully acknowledge that truth.  It was not a picture perfect world that this Christ child entered, it was a flawed one.  There isn’t a decoration, gift, event or jingle bell that will change that.  The beauty we seek at this time of year will never eliminate the pain, the struggles or the disappointments that we all encounter.  Nor should it.  For it is our moments of loneliness and the times we spend in darkness that give us the opportunity to really see the depth in beauty when it is offered.  As difficult as the act of choosing this view may be, allowing beauty to enter in despite our realities is also a powerful act. Beauty serves to offer us hope and inspiration, and in that way can become the ransom for our exile.

Perhaps that is why we can rejoice after singing through these melancholic words.  Perhaps that is why we prepare.  Perhaps that is why we celebrate – whether we are of this particular faith or not.  Understanding that there is joy to be found amidst the rubble of this world is important.  It gives us hope.  It renews us.

So we prepare.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.