“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: Interrupt Us with Hope

I hadn’t noticed it until recently, but this year I’ve been haunted by the song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” My playlists all Advent have contained various versions of the carol by The Civil Wars,  JJ Heller, and others. And for some strange reason, the more unnerving the voice the better.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but 2018 has been an exhausting year. I have acutely felt the whiplash and anxiety of the news pressing upon me in such a way as to feel a heaviness nearly overcoming me. Yet, in the midst of this, I hear “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and something resonates within me. The pain, the anxiety, and the hunger for Christ all fold into that evocative request—presumptuous and desperate—begging Christ to come among us: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel… Who mourns in lonely exile here…”

The sense of waiting for a hope that seems distant can be exhausting, which is why Christmas and the Incarnation might be more important to me this year than last. What I need is a Holy Interruption of Hope—I need to experience that mystery of Jesus’s love in his coming down into the mess and stress of my world. I need to remember that Christmas and the Incarnation are not just things that happened once upon a time in ancient Palestine, but there are ongoing interruptions of hope into my world.

St. Ignatius of Loyola imagined that at the moment of the Incarnation, the three persons of the Trinity stared down from heaven. They looked over all the earth, seeing all at once the beauty and the ugliness of humanity. They saw laughter and tears, kindness and hatred, peace and violence, life and death… The whole of human existence crying out in anticipation as Christ decided to dive into the muck to be with us—to comfort and satiate our longing for God. And then it happened, Jesus dove into the world, interrupting the tedium of what seemed like an endless, hopeless cycle.

I wonder what would happen if we reimagined St. Ignatius’s reflection as set in 2018: What might the first Christmas look like if it happened this year? Could we imagine the Trinity looking down from heaven upon the fires in California, the wreckage from hurricanes, the revolution in Nicaragua, the continued violence in Syria and Yemen, the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, the hatred and ignorance of our political leaders… What if that same anticipation that Ignatius imagined was building now? Can we imagine that scene with Christ leaning on the edge preparing to dive into our world?

Each year, we remember and relive the Incarnation and the mystery of Christmas—the mystery of an all-powerful, all-loving God doing the incomprehensible, hearing our cries and coming down to dwell among us. Christmas this year offers an opportunity to re-enter into that profound love, to satiate that haunting cry “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that we carry within deep our hearts.

The challenge for me, as it is every year, will be to remember that Christ came in a small, quiet moment in a manger. At that first Christmas, it wasn’t pomp and pageantry and royal entourages that interrupted the silent night to announce the birth of Christ. Instead, it was shepherds hearing the angels’ songs while working in their day-to-day that came to pay homage to the Christ Child. Emmanuel broke into their lives like a Holy Interruption, shaking them out of their monotony by delivering good news and hope.

But, I imagine that they still had to be there listening. I wonder if I’ll be open to seeking Christ this season in those quiet songs of joy, in those mangers and small moments, in the silent glow of the hearth and Christmas lights, or in the gentle chiming laughter of my family and friends.

Perhaps, that is what I most hope for in singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I want to be heard by God. I want to know that despite the anxiety, exhaustion, and despair of a year that Christ hears me. And, I want to believe that in my waiting, I’ll be ready for Christ to appear and interrupt the despondency. I want to sing “Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel!” realizing not that Christ has solved all the problems, but that Jesus is present and with me.

Maybe that is the call for all of us this Christmas: keep our eyes towards those interruptions, those tiny stars that appear in the darkness of the night sky that point us towards hope and Jesus. The invitation is to cry out “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and then to wait and turn our eyes and hearts towards Bethlehem, and ultimately towards those moments of Holy Interruption which remind us of the hope that Christ brings.

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