This is part one of a four-part blog series focusing on the season of Advent. For the next few weeks, Emmaus poets, writers and artists will share their work with us as we anticipate Christmas together.
Nobody likes to wait because nobody likes to feel powerless, and nothing washes away the sand-castle reign over our own lives quite like waiting. Look around a hospital waiting room. It’s filled with the family and friends of patients whose very lives often hang in the balance. The tension is palpable. The feeling of helplessness and anxiety is almost manifest. How long must they wait for the doctor to come – and when he comes, will he be a messenger of death or a messenger of life?
Believe it or not, many of the classic Christmas hymns we sing are meant to convey this sense of hopeless anticipation. Think of the words of “O Come O Come Emmanuel:”
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
This is not by accident. The Advent season should come with this feeling – anticipation, longing, waiting – because this was precisely the burden Israel bore throughout her history.
From the moment Adam flung creation into rebellion against God, humanity has been held under the thumb of sin and death. Israel in particular felt the breath-stopping constriction of sin’s bondage. As God’s chosen people, they were called to be faithful and obedient to God, and yet at every turn found themselves repeating Adam’s folly by choosing anything and everything above God. They proved themselves as an unfaithful bride lusting after idols and false religions. Their sin lead to their nation breaking in half, and foreign powers subjugating them, mirroring the condition of their own hearts.
But Israel was not without hope.
Before casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden, God gave them a promise. Someday, a descendant of Eve would do battle with that ancient serpent and would emerge victorious. God’s promise was the promise of a Messiah that would rescue humanity from the powers of sin and the devil. A serpent-crusher.
So Israel waited for their coming Messiah. As their land was torn into two separate nations, and as their sons were killed in war, and as they were shackled and taken to out of their promised land, their eyes were ever forward to a child who would be born of a virgin and called Immanuel and Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Helplessly, they longed for the ruler who was to come out of Bethlehem whose origin was from ancient times. They waited powerlessly for the righteous and gentle king to ride in on a donkey bringing salvation.
Though they didn’t know the words, from their helpless station of life-crushing anticipation, Israel sang the point of “O Come O Come Emmanuel:” “God, please come save us!”
So Israel waited for their salvation. Years passed to decades, decades passed to centuries. Four hundred years passed between the prophet Malachi and the next time God would speak to Israel, and all that time, in hushed, fearful tones, their hearts hummed, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
Until one day the joy of dawn finally broke. No longer would humanity long for salvation. God’s silence was broken by the cry of an infant king who would right all wrongs and would dive deep into creation to save his people. With hearts leaping from their chests and with eyes wet with joy, they were able to finally sing,
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come for thee, O Israel!
We begin Advent with anticipation because that is the first act of God’s redemptive story. With anticipation comes the realization that we are utterly powerless to save ourselves. We are wholly dependent on God’s promise to unshackle our chains, to lift our heads, and to bring us into fellowship with him. So with our eyes and hearts pointing ever forward to the dawning joy, let us sit feel the weight of Israel’s wait. Let us reflect on and feel the burden Israel’s anxiousness as they awaited their coming savior, because to truly appreciate the blinding glory of the incarnation, we must first sit in the hopeful bleakness of anticipation.
My immediate thought when hearing the theme of this first week of advent was “distant.” People far from God, longing to be brought near. I wanted to convey visual distance in the piece, and choose to set the piece in an old building, looking down long corridors. Typically, the artist tries to create pleasant movement within a piece. I wanted the opposite for my piece. I wanted to interrupt the audience. The image of the serpent (this one drawn from an old book of scientific illustrations) has long been used in Christian artwork to represent Satan, and is a clear reference to the proto-evangelium, that the coming savior will crush the head of the serpent. And lastly the eye at the top of the stair, representing God’s omniscience and sovereignty.
Sonnet 1 – anticipation, desperation
Will any come near to gather up the lost?
Who will intercede for us? Is the cost
Too high? Is man too low for kings to fore-
Go the throne? How long will you ignore
The cries of your people? Have you exhaust-
Ed all of your compassion? We wait, unwashed,
Unkempt, scattered, scathed and unsure.
Yet, woe to us if we cry out for less,
Boasting hope as just a treasure to touch.
Hope is lost when she’s a prize to posses:
So find her where she cannot be clutched.
Then, what little is wasted, waiting as clay
For the Christ that will not fade away.