We gathered this morning in our church, along with Christians around the world, to observe the first Sunday of Advent, our intentional, patient walk to the birth of Jesus. Our tradition on this day is a service called “The Hanging of the Greens” (needless to say, we are not alone) where we decorate the sanctuary as we tell the stories of where many of our Christian traditions around Christmas came from: wreaths, holly, poinsettias, trees, and lights. At the same time, we were following our usual liturgy, which begins with a note of praise and then moves to a prayer of confession. Following the prayer we have a time of silence before we are reminded that we are forgiven by the very one whose birth we await. Today, that silence was followed, first, by music. My friend, Terry — who is an amazing harmonica player — joined with his friend, Roger, who plays the upright bass to offer “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
The piece began with Roger bowing the bass and offering a deep and aching musical phrase that felt mournful and resolute at the same time. Terry joined in with what felt like the opening melody of the carol, but he didn’t finish the line. The two of them swirled around each other, one high and one low, incarnating the pleading anticipation of the carol even as they began to play the notes I recognized. No one sang a word, yet both their rehearsed notes and their improvisations spoke more than any lyric. Deep called to deep, as the psalmist said. As they played, I scribbled in my notebook,
I’m not ready for this. Advent, that is. The long walk to a first Christmas without Dad.
I’ve almost dreaded sitting down to keep my promise of a daily journal during Advent, which has been my spiritual practice for many years now, because I still don’t know how to write about much more than my grief, as I have done over the past four months in my less than regular posts. A couple of years ago, I wrote for several days one spring about what it felt like to live with my severe allergies and had someone write and asked to be removed from receiving the posts by email because they were tired of hearing about my pain. Though I was still stopped up, changing subjects was not so difficult; this time around, however, I find few circumstances in my life that aren’t affected by my father’s death. I am not merely congested; I am changed.
The song helped me this morning. As Roger drew the bow across the stand-up bass, I recognized the melody, not of the carol, but of grief. As Terry breathed into the harmonica the breath that became the swirling minor chords of longing and loss, I felt known and even gathered up. They were playing not just my song, but a hymn deep from the heart of humanity: O come, O come . . . . While they played, I remembered I could write my own words to the hymn, if you will. I remembered I needed to write as they played: not trying to speak for all eternity, but to make my offering on this day. And what I have to offer is my grief.
For all but the last few days of this Advent season, the darkness will keep growing as the days get shorter and shorter. Even as far south as we are in Durham, the sun feels like it calls it a day in the middle of the afternoon. I learned when dealing with my depression a few years ago that I dealt better with the setting sun if I was outside of the house — something about being inside when night settles shuts me down, so Ginger and I do our best to go walking about dusk so we are out on the streets as it gets dark. The last light of the day is rich and deep — photographer’s light — as though it were streams of stories reflecting off of the bricks and mortar and falling into the shadows. I find consolation being out and about in the fading day, to be together in the dark.
As Terry began to play the melody I recognized, I heard the words in my head: O come, O come, Emmanuel. Emmanuel: the name spoken to Joseph as he struggled with how to come to terms with Mary’s pregnancy, and with an angel in his room. Emmanuel: God With Us. I love the encounter as it is described in the gospels, because the name of the child doesn’t offer a solution, but a presence. God with us.
O come, O come and find us in the dark. We are here. Together.