Usually, by the time December rolls around, I am ready for the Advent season to come around as well. I am ready to cozy underneath the black and white checkered blanket, a cup of tea to my left and an Irish murder mystery novel on my lap, as Christmas tree lights twinkle in the background. As much as I may whine and complain, I find that I am ready to dwell on mystery and sit with waiting; I am ready to wonder about light in darkness, about hope for the hopeless, and about all the elements I yearn to embrace in this haunted time of anticipation.
But this year — perhaps because I’m writing this in the middle of what feels like the most Advent of all Advents — none of the usual tricks seem to be working.
We went to the Christmas tree lot (the only one, according to my sons, the one secured behind a chain-link fence on the corner of 35th and MacArthur), and picked out the perfect-for-us tree. We turned on Christmas music, secured a spot in the corner of the living room and flexed our muscles to pull bins of decorations out from the garage.
But when my older son strung twinkling white lights across the multi-color rug and only half of them lit up, and when my husband and I found ourselves in the middle of one of those arguments that began with the tiniest thing — the tiniest thing being the best way to secure a tree when the base is too narrow for the stand’s screws — this season of waiting-for-light-in-the-darkness didn’t feel like it held a whole lot of hope.
I wondered what I’d done wrong.
I wondered what we’d done wrong to fail at something as simple as a little bit of merriment and cheer.
Later that night, after the boys had gone to bed but before my husband and I said our apologies and hugged it out (a hug, mind you, that has to last for at least six seconds, as each of us counts in our minds and continues to hold on to one another, until we really believe it), one of my favorite Christmas hymns began to play quietly in the background.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
I listened as minor chords ushered me into a chorus of hope, daring me come to a place of remembering what is to come. After all, the hymn does not come from a joyful place of knowing or even of celebration, but is instead set in darkness and captivity, in a place that “mourns in lonely exile here.” Just as the Israelites sing in want of the One who is to come, there is an awareness of place and of present circumstances. Its minor key is then a beckoning to embrace both celebration and tears, “as witness to its mingled joy and sorrow.”
In a year that feels like the Advent of all Advents, this dark and ancient hymn feels truer than ever before.
For those of us who call the U.S. home, our country is in a place of mourning. As of this last week, more than 300,000 Americans lost their lives due to Covid-19; according to recent reports, nearly 13 percent of families are experiencing food scarcity and just over 9 percent of families are experiencing housing insecurity. Racial tensions continue to dominate news cycles (and certainly for good reason, because until we don’t have to talk about racism and white supremacy, we have to talk about racism and white supremacy).
We are tired, scared, bone-weary —waiting for a little bit of light to come into the darkness, hoping that old gimmicks just might do the trick, and feeling defeated all over again when they don’t work.
But then, that old hymn and the reminder of the both-and: that celebration and mourning, joy and sorrow, light and darkness can and do exist side-by-side, even now, even this year.
And when I think about it that way, I don’t feel so alone, so caught up in the exile of 2020.
When I think about it that way, I can’t help but see a little bit of light creep into the darkness of the Advent season.