One of the great parts of Advent for me is the sensory experience of it. You could point to the smell of Christmas cookies baking in the oven, the sight of houses on the street at night glowing with their Christmas lights. But another big one is sound, and more specifically, music. The music of this season for me helps deliver us from what can be a depressing time of year with short days and no leaves on the tree or flowers in the garden. I love all of the music of this time of year. I have Christmas carols playing in my car when I’m driving and even on my iPod when I’m running. But if I’m ever going to experience Advent, it has to be with the music of the season. And I do have some Advent favorites.
One might immediately think of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and that would be a good one, particularly in these later days of Advent when we reflect on all those titles of Jesus: O Wisdom, O Dayspring, O Key of David, O Emmanuel. But my absolute favorite Advent hymn is “O Come, Divine Messiah.” This hymn is the English translation of “Venez, divin Messie,” a French Carol written in the sixteenth century. It seems to have been translated by Sister Mary of Saint Philip, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who lived in the latter portion of the nineteenth century. She was one of the first English members of the her order when they established their training college at Mount Pleasant in Liverpool, England, in about 1850. She and at least one other sister wrote both translations and original hymns and songs over the course of their long professional lives. So when we’re singing this hymn, maybe we can offer a prayer of thanks for Sister Mary of Saint Philip!
The imagery in “O Come, Divine Messiah” is the stock stuff of Advent. When we sing it, we call on our Savior to come in haste, dispelling the darkness of our world by showing his face, giving us a glimpse of his glory, and opening up a bright new dawn as he does something new in all of us. I think that’s the experience that Advent calls on us to realize. If we have no need of a Savior, there is no Advent, there is no Christmas, there is no Christ. But our Savior did indeed come to a world deeply in need of a Savior, both then and now.
We know that our world and our lives can be dark places. How dark has it become in these days with the tragedy in Connecticut, or discussions of the fiscal cliff? Because of those, this has been a difficult, profoundly sad, even terrifying week for all of us. Perhaps we might even say that it has broken the Christmas season for us. We all want answers, some word that’s going to make it all better, and there just isn’t one, at least not in the sense that we think. The only word that does make it better is the Word – with a capital “W” – the Son of God, Jesus Christ, come in the flesh, dwelling among us, speaking God’s message of hope and peace and challenge and grace in our world that needs all three of those!
The other sadness which needs the presence of Christ is our own lives. What kind of stresses are we dealing with on a daily basis? Our own fiscal cliffs? Upheaval in relationships? Unconfessed sin? Dealing with catastrophic illness? And these are some of so many things that can turn our world upside-down and plunge us into our own personal darkness, which often feels darker because others are not experiencing it. What makes all that go away? When does it stop?
Dear Savior, haste!
Come, come to earth;
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace!
Hope is the enduring attitude of Advent. Just when everything seems lost and we are tempted to despair, Advent reaches out to us and pulls us back toward Christ, the light and salvation of our lives. There is no darkness that Advent can’t brighten; there is no despair that isn’t obliterated by our Lord’s most merciful coming in the flesh. There is no sin that leaves us beyond the grasp of God’s healing and mercy. This is the long-foretold Christ whom nations sigh for, promised by priest and prophet alike, who will come to redeem all of us, long lost as we may have been.
To the world, Advent may seem too-little, too late. What kind of God comes in peace and meekness, in a lowly cradle? How can any God come so passively and meekly? What good can that do in any possible way? But we people of faith see differently. Yes, he came clothed in human weakness, but we see his Godhead: we see that a word of peace can change everything, that an ignominious death on a cross can shake the earth and obliterate death’s enduring power over us, that a Gospel of repentance can forever smash the power of sin.
Our readings today back up our reason for hope. The prophet Micah insists that the coming Savior will hail from none other than Bethlehem-Ephrathah, the humblest of the clans of Judah. He will shepherd all his people (including us!) humbly, but with strength that comes from God, and he shall be the ultimate peace. In our gospel reading, Mary has consented to God’s will for her life, and hurries off to her cousin Elizabeth. They share each other’s joy, and the fetus of Saint John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb for joy at the coming of the Savior! The long night of sin and death is coming to an end; the great dawn of Christ’s presence and grace rises on the eastern horizon. We are on the precipice of salvation!
This is why I love “O Come, Divine Messiah;” this is why I so tenaciously cling to the message of hope that is Advent. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and energizes my life and ministry. There is nothing that the world can throw at us that can overshadow the light of Christ. Nothing.
O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.