You take a candle at the door of the dim church. You stick the candle through the paper circle and hold it underneath, the wax malleable if you grip tightly enough. You clasp it gently, just enough to feel the thinnest residue on your skin.
How hard it is to wait until the last song of the Christmas Eve service to light the wick.
You find a seat in the fourth row of the right section. You leave space on the other side of you for friends who may or may not come.
You don’t need the lyrics to the carols, but you look up at the projected words anyway as you sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” A cello adds an especially mournful note tonight. You sing quietly, your voice lost in the crowd of fifty or so voices.
O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear
Your mind doesn’t think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Instead, you think of Elizabeth, her cousin. The one who spent decades of marriage childless, the pity of her village.
Suddenly the words aren’t about the Messiah anymore. In your heart, they’re about Elizabeth’s missing child who never was. The cries of the strings become her cries of mourning as she reaches middle age without conception.
They become the cries of Anna, the prophetess whose husband died in their first short years of happy marriage.
It becomes the cries of the shepherds, living outside with animals, never invited to celebrations, lonely and poor.
It becomes the cries of the Magi, the wise men who longed for a King who would not disappoint them like every person in whom they had trusted.
The song becomes the pain suffered by so many in this well-known story.
And the song becomes every heartbreak and loneliness you’ve known this last long year.
shall come to thee O Israel
Emmanuel shall come to thee.
And in this you remember that their cries were not just for the missing child, the dead husband, the loneliness of being outcast, the disappointment of failed heroes. Whether or not they realized it, their cries were for a Savior, one who would make “everything sad come untrue.”
A Savior who would come.
Shall come to thee O Israel
The music ends not on the completion, but on the hope of completion. The last note feels dark and unsettled, begging for the lighter sounds of the refrain, like a fairy tale missing the “happily ever after.”
The song does not recall the end of the story. It does not meet you in the happiness of Christmas morning, but it meets you in the long waiting of Christmas Eve. Like Isaiah, it looks forward to the hope that is yet to be.
You grip your candle tightly as you wait for the chance to light it. You know the time will come.
O come, O come Emmanuel And ransom captive Israel
(This was also published on Elim Evangelical Free Church's blog, The Last Word.)