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How Advent Teaches Us, Amid Sorrow, To Rejoice

Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard_van_Honthorst, 1622.

Today is the last day of Advent. What does the church teach us about sadness and joy? Just consider some of her hymns and scriptures.


“Why are these Christmas songs so sad?”

The question came from a little girl named Hazel. She’d been raised in a different Christian tradition, with drums, guitars, and applause. But that Sunday of Advent, she was sitting with her dad in a small Catholic church among the California redwoods outside Santa Cruz.

O come, o come, Emanuel,
And ransom captive Israel.

“I think they’re beautiful,” he whispered.

I chuckled when he told me what she’d asked. I’d never thought of it that way. Church at Advent was peaceful, yes — a quiet and contemplative place, where the noble smell of incense took the place of Christmas trees, the flicker of Advent candles replaced the blinking lights of shops and lampposts, and we sang of the Holy Family rather than Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty.

But there is a sadness in Advent that better educated Christians than I understood long before they heard the simple question Hazel asked her father. More than sadness, there is a longing so deep that for centuries in the Middle Ages, priests wore black in its presence, and still today wear purple as a sign of both their mourning for what is to come, and the royal nature of our deliverer.

That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

For four centuries — the silent years after Malachi, final prophet of the Old Testament, and before John the Baptist — our world sat in darkness. The Lord has spoken through the prophets, and his final prophet had told of his anger.

The people of Israel, he declared, had disdained his name and defiled his table. His own priests had betrayed him, choosing to please society, permitting their sins and calling good what was wicked.

Malachi told not only of the Lord’s anger, but also of his promise: “Now,” the Lord said, “I am sending my messenger — he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple.”

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel
Shall come to you, o’ Israel

The music of Advent is sad because Advent is sad. We had strayed, neglected our worship, corrupted God’s temples, and blessed what was evil. But why speak in the past tense? Is there any reason to look around us — at our world, with all its bitterness and empty churches — and think any differently? Or for that matter, was there ever any day or night where we could look around ourselves and think any differently?

There was — one holy winter night, when the angels lit the skies above sleepy Bethlehem, and the Lord our God was made flesh and dwelt among us. “What came to be through him,” the apostle John writes, “was life, and this life was the light of the human race.”

But again, why speak in the past tense? That winter night has not passed. Yes, mankind saw the child born in a manger, yet many of us did not know him then — and many don’t know him now. Still others hated him, and they put him to death on a cross. But for all our trying, we could never give away what the Lord had given.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

“I love you, says the Lord,” reads the first line of the last book of the Old Testament, even for all our wanting and wantonness. Our time away from Eden has been a long exile, but still he loves us, “and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So this Christmas, gathering with friends and family, be joyful. He who has redeemed us, who came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” has come. The darkness is real, but never again will we wait 400 years for his answer. God has given his answer — and his answer is his Son, Christ the Child, Christ the King.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing

Merry Christmas to all.