O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
What is Advent anyway?
Honestly, I didn't understand what Advent meant for the longest time, let alone why the church didn't just call it "Christmastime". Mostly that was due to the lack of attention my church gave to the liturgical calendar when I was growing up. I was totally ignorant of this " Advent " thing until I was in college. Only then did I start to understand just how important this was to my life.
The definition of Advent is the coming or second coming of Christ. For those who don't know (like me before college), Advent and Christmas are actually two different seasons for the church. While Christmas is all about celebration and gift-giving, Advent is focused on the longing for what Christmas brings.
The song, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" perfectly sums up what Advent is all about.
"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."
In this first verse of the song we see something crucial and also a little counter-cultural within many evangelical circles. The term "ransom" is very significant here. The bottom line is, somewhere along the way, through choices (seen and unseen) humanity gave itself over to a malevolent and sentient darkness that corrupted us all to the core.
It's not hard to believe. Look around you at this world we live in. Mass shootings, xenophobic violence, racism, white supremacy, global warming, unchecked power and corruption, twitter. And even though statistically speaking, in many ways the world is better now than it ever has been, it's still VERY dark. And if you REALLY want to get uncomfortable, look inside yourself. I know I don't want to either. But it's still there.
All throughout ancient creation myths, we see humanity either willingly giving themselves over to evil, evil being thrust upon them, or (most of the time) both. These themes are just as prevalent in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and extra-biblical texts. SO if one were to concede that evil is real and that we have willingly joined it and at the same time ruled over by it, we can also concede that we are born under some sort of binding contract with it that we can't escape from; making the thing we call, sin, more like a haunting curse placed on us without our consent or choice. While we do willingly participate in sin, we also don't seem to have a choice in the matter most of the time. This can and does look different for everyone. No one has arrived. No one is unbroken. No one is better than anyone else. We're all in this dark prison together.
The theme of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is rooted in the Israelites' exile and captivity. Through engaging with the darkness yet again, the Israelites gave themselves over to the gods of the other nations, literally worshipping their idols in the temple, which involved rape, orgies, infant sacrifice, and cannibalism. It wasn't simply just converting to another religion as one might do today. There were a lot of dark things involved with this process. God could no longer be a part of what they had become and they didn't want him there anyway.
So eventually they realized that they had in fact joined the darkness willingly and grieved this fact. But God hadn't given up on them. He began promising them a messiah that wouldn't just come to save them from their exile and captivity, but one that would satisfy the contract that humanity had given themselves over to. He would be the ransom to satisfy this curse. The blood that would pay off the debt to the dark powers of the world that enslaved humanity.
Of course, those would understand the Christmas story and know that the messiah did, in fact, come and did, in fact, pay that ransom with his life; but then did what the dark powers or the Israelites never expected and defeated death, not only releasing humanity from their debt but also paving a new way into true life. This is why Christians rejoice at Christmastime...but why do we focus so much on Advent too?
The plain and simple answer to that is...look around you. The darkness' ransom may have been paid and Jesus may have paved a new path that led out of all this mess, but it's still not over. We still long for a messiah to come and make things right. We still long for a second coming that promises not just a way out, but that darkness will be no more. And until that time comes, we are always in a season of Advent. We are constantly looking for the day when greed and power will not rule our world. Where no one will be raped or beaten. Where no one will be threatened or violated. Where mass shootings are a mournful thing of the distant past, where sickness or cancer cannot touch us. And where all who are willing to come, will be in the light forever, finally getting into the business humanity (every tribe and every tongue) was made for in a perfect and united way.
So as we enter this season of Advent, we say, Oh Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and will continue to say it until it happens again.