We British like to debate when it is (and isn't) acceptable to decorate the house. Well, I'll unashamedly confess that we did ours on the 29th Nov, ready for the 1st December. (Even our bed underwent a festive transformation...!)
Cosy, comfortable Advent.
Messy, complex Advent.
Painful, brutal, joyful Advent.
Through Advent, we're able to present ourselves to God as we truly are - no disguises, no masks, no make believe. Instead, hope and groans and expectation and brokenness and longing. And in it all - joy.
There's certainly enough in this song to keep both the historian and theologian busy for a while. However, there's another reason I count this as one of my favourite carols. A less obvious one.
O Come O Come Emmanuel is a meditation on the groaning but joyous season of Advent. Consider its first stanza:
They're bent over for groaning, and it's utterly palpable in the lyrics.
"Oh come - oh, come! - Emmanuel, God with Us! Come, please, we beg of you - come and be with us so that we may be with you! Come! Come!"
Each stanza is the same: painful groans of desperation; loud pleas to be rescued from their own deathly bodies; crushed petitions to put an end to Satan's dictatorship. Frightened, they put their night terrors before the gates of heaven. Weeping, they ask for those dying amongst them to be comforted. They plead for safety and respite from this crippling sadness. This is not a tame carol. It does not wear a false smile. It tells you what you need to hear, rather than what you'd like to. We shouldn't rush to 'apologise' for it or underplay its bluntness. After all, in this respect it follows the tradition of many of the Psalms.
Much like the Psalms (and the Bible in general), grief and pain do not get the last word. Having expressed such deep sadness, the carol bursts with an exclamation of joy!
"Rejoice! Rejoice! He IS coming"
This isn't some bait and switch. The carol isn't being duplicitous. Nor is this some moralistic exhortation to present a 'stiff upper lip'. The suffering is still there; it still exists. It hasn't been forgotten. (Indeed you're about to hear of it 3 or 4 more times.) Rather - it is out of the suffering that the author explodes with joy in God's promises. This is the gift of God to His people. They are not promised an easy or comfortable life. They are not guaranteed happiness. But they are given the joy of God in all circumstances.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel presents us with the reality of living as the people of God. What it's like to wait, to watch and to weep. What it means to groan with overflowing, expectant joy.
In short: it shows us what it's like to celebrate Advent.
Advent gives us a glimpse into this longing expectation. We're symbolically put in the position of Isaiah himself, pointing towards a pregnant word of promise.
Advent encourages us to pray with Scripture: Make all things new! We're groaning for your coming Kingdom, our cheeks are wet with tears and the enemy stalks us still. O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
Whether you're mourning the loss of a loved one, or contemplating a serious disease, or financial difficulty, or depression and disability, or trying to reconcile with a friend or even a partner, when you miss your family - whatever it might be, I think it's fair to say that life isn't exactly straightforward. And then... December comes along, with its gaudy decorations and forced happiness. And it's just. way. too. much. It's then that Advent takes on a different meaning:
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
Advent affords us with an opportunity to throw ourselves onto God - just as we really are, not as the season might expect us to be. It invites truthfulness. Groans and weeping, pain and grief; this is part + parcel of what Advent's about. We're thereby encouraged to be honest with a God of promise. A God who delights in being Immanuel. With us, in our weeping, in our depression, in our groaning, in our longing. He promises us joy. He offers us rest. This is the one who is with us in our waiting.
11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Col 1:11-14]