Rejoice! ...Or else!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!
‘O come, o come Emmanuel’
And Love is not a victory march / It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
‘Hallelujah’ – as covered by Jeff Buckley
At this time of year, I’m always faced with a tension that remains unresolved. All around us are the signs of jolly Christmas, and the adverts telling us we need to do our ‘last minute’ shopping… in November. The lights are up, the toys are newly minted, the festive menus are on offer: the season is in full swing. And I enjoy lots of that build up. The lights, the traditions, the snow: it all adds to the sense of time and place, pulling all the sentimental strings from childhood. But then, on the other hand, I hear the warning voices of the ancients, telling us that we need to prepare ourselves. We need to remember that ‘All that glisters is not gold,’ that the promise of good times, good food, good presents, might well be exaggerated for the purposes of (someone else’s) financial gain. The songs and shops promise much, offer good feelings, but normally fail to deliver. It’s an unresolved tension. I like the seasonal traditions and want to dive into the merriment; but I also want to go deep into things that are truly meaningful, life-giving in the longer-term. So there is a word which I think might help me (us?) at this time of year: rejoice.
In the great Advent carol, ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ this word ‘rejoice’ is part of the refrain. It can sound somewhat like a command: rejoice…or else! But when I think about it, if that’s how we understand this carol it might also be how we understand our contemporary culture. That too tells us to ‘rejoice… or else.’ You will have fun, you will buy the special chocolate tins that light up, you will go to see the lights and experience the fake snow as you sip your warm mulled wine. If you don’t then you’re a grinch, a Scrooge. This is a kind of enforced joy, which is surely a paradox. Joy cannot be enforced, either at the hands of an ancient carol or contemporary shopping culture. So maybe we might want to rethink how we interpret the command ‘rejoice.’
The ‘rejoicing’ spoken of in the carol is aimed at ‘Israel.’ Read the rest of the words and you’ll discover that Israel had been in lonely exile, awaiting ransom, languishing in the depths of hell, and fearing the grave. The one who would rescue them from it all is now appearing. The rejoicing imagined is one that erupts from the lips of an oppressed people. It is an exhausted rejoicing, the kind that comes from a people who have seen a tentative glimmer of hope in the darkness and reaches out to grab hold of it. I don’t imagine it looks like a song-and-dance, a light show with a band. No, it is a joy that wells up deep within keeping them warm until that which they have been waiting for arrives in its fullness.
So we come to the second song I quoted above. These words have always captivated my imagination: Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. That captures the mood of Advent and Christmas for me. No enforced jollity, but a song of praise from one who has been broken and yet finds a Love that promises to put back together all the broken pieces. Love is no triumphalist victory march - ‘look, I got through life without a scratch,’ - but rather a song of thanksgiving, of praise, from one who has known the warming presence of the flame of Love that refuses to give up on them.
Perhaps here we can come back to our 'jolly' culture and discover something worthy of keeping. What if, amidst all the shopping and eating, all the lights and markets, we can discover an outlet for that kind of broken hallelujah? I don’t mean we dive into a consumerism which is destroying family finances and putting the future of our planet in deeper peril. But I do mean the deep impulses of joy that are still there beneath it all. The instinct to be with others; the instinct to find meaning in challenging times. The instinct to reach out to others to offer them strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. In our carol singing, our present wrapping, our mince-pie eating, might we be offering a cold and broken hallelujah?
The tension is real: do I reject the seasonal celebrations so I can go deeper in more meaningful spirituality? Must I lose one in order to focus on the other? Or can I rethink what it means to rejoice? Can my rejoicing be alongside the oppressed and marginalised, as well as in the London markets filled with goods I cannot afford to buy? As I await Emmanuel, the one who might set me free again, perhaps I can discover anew how to sing the song of one who has been met by Love.
A prayer for Advent week 3:
Loving Father God,
In your Son Jesus you reached out with a mighty arm and an outstretched hand, so that you might rescue your people, Israel. But your reach is always further than we imagine, and now we discover that hand has found us in our lost and broken places. Help us to discover deep joy at being met by you again this Christmas. Help us to sing songs of praise, even if it is through broken and cold lips. By your Spirit, stir up within us an ancient memory of promises made long ago that you will never leave or forsake us, that you have loved us with an everlasting love, and that what you have begun you will bring to completion in Christ.
We rejoice! You have come to us and set us free.