O Emmanuel by Malcolm Guite
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
We are close to the end of our Advent journey, and this week’s readings give us the great promise-Emmanuel, God with us.
All too often we sentimentalise both Christmas and the idea of God with us. It can become a saccharine hope or nice, warm feeling such as might be conjured by a Hallmark greeting card.
But Emmanuel is anything but sweet and comfortable.
To say that God has physically joined our human condition and shares in the vulnerability of all creation is to say that God is accompanying us as we labour to bear the Word in the world. It is to say that God suffers what we suffer; that God is bent under the crippling yoke of injustice, struggles under oppression, bears the indignity of abuse and feels all the torments of disease and the pain of grief and loss. God, as Guite says, has made a womb of all this wounded world and the heart of heaven beats on earth. God has wound around us a chrysalis where the rags of time fall away and what emerges are new wings born of all that is eternal.
The reason why Emmanuel is not sentimental is that this transformation only comes through death- the death of a God who would become the abandoned one so that we may never be abandoned. The swaddling bands of a babe return to be the grave cloths of the one who would walk the road not only of mortality, but of violence and betrayal and rejection. Death is one of the themes of this Advent season, and as we look to the star and the promise at the end of this week, we are seeking the incredible, too-good-to-be-true and yet too-powerful-to-be-overcome hope of resurrection.
What would it look like if we recognised that there is no God-forsaken place and no heart that God would not enter? I think in practice it would mean that we approach our life together with a commitment to solidarity– possibly my favourite Advent theme that isn’t actually an Advent theme. If God is with us, then we are also with one another. The mystery of grace makes a womb of all the wounded world.
When we allow the Christ to make a home in us, then we are entering into an intimacy beyond which inevitably, says Henri Nouwen, we find solidarity. God’s presence excludes no one and would include everyone. Rowan Williams describes the meaning of the Eucharist to be found in the astonishing truth that God desires our company…and not only our company, but the company of the person sitting next to us, the one sharing a home with us…and the one abusing us as they steal our carpark in the Christmas shopping rush. God has made a home with us on earth so that we can find a place at the table for all others. Nouwen explains it like this;
The best way to see the interconnectedness of intimacy and solidarity is to recall and enter more deeply into the words of St John: “the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.” These words express the mystery that God, in whom all was created, has become part of that same creation. Through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ all human flesh has been lifted up into God’s own intimacy. There is no human being in the past, present or future, in East, West, North or South, who has not been embraced by God in and through the flesh of the Word.
But it is equally easy to make of solidarity a nice sentimental feeling. It is, of course, anything but… Walter Brueggemann defines solidarity as steadfast love enacted with transformative strength. Solidarity challenges us to let go of all our ideologies and conceptual understanding of God and the world that keep things in neat categories and allows us to judge others. Enacting love with strength means that we don’t settle for superficial relationships and swift and easy condemnation of others. We stay the distance, even when it is uncomfortable. God in Jesus, after all, has shown us the way by walking the long road to Golgotha, for love. This is not so that we should feel guilty, but so we may understand the depth of the steadfast, covenantal love that is best expressed in the Hebrew word hesed; a love that is faithful, enduring and committed…always moving toward us. This love took God into the gentle darkness of a young woman’s womb, to lying squawling in a dirty animal trough, to eating and drinking, laughing and crying with humankind and then surrendering to the pain, shame and loneliness of the cross. The power of that same love is found then in an empty tomb and in the revealing of a new world where God will never be absent…. not even in the meanest corner nor most desolate house of human self-loathing and fear, violence and despair.
It is this same love that we are called into sharing with the world. It is because God is transforming the world, bringing eternity to birth and imbuing the human race with good dreams that we are called to have faith not only in God, but in one another who are Christ-bearers. When we see Christ looking out from the eyes of the other, speaking with the voice of the other, we will be much slower to judge, and quicker to attend. We might tune in with greater care to see what God may be revealing to us through this person. We will have the courage to walk with them in their sorrows and allow their suffering to challenge our way of being in the world. And when the eyes do not seem to see as Christ sees, nor seem to speak as Christ speaks, then we may be prompted by our solidarity, our steadfast faithfulness, to stay with the other as we discern how the Spirit is speaking and how we can recall one another to our best selves. In this divided world, how might the tender cords of friendship and love enable us together to live into the ultimate prayer that God’s will may be done.
This is so important because there is that spirit in the world- the Bible calls it the satan- who is constantly accusing us and telling lies about ourselves and other people. It is so easy when we are hurt by someone to narrate a story that they are really hateful or selfish or ignorant. It is even easier to narrate a story about ourselves when we mess up, (or even when we don’t), that we are useless or hopeless, or worthless or unlovable. This is a bullying spirit that degrades us, even as it at simultaneously brings out our worst.
Solidarity, on the other hand, is defiant. It hears the whispers and sees the pointing of the accuser and firmly closes its ears and eyes until only the child of God is beheld. It slips a hand into the hand of God and chooses to give and receive mercy…chooses to love…. and chooses to have faith in this beautiful broken world and in the glorious women and men formed to be image-bearers of God. Solidarity says, because God is with us, I am with you, and I am for you, just as I know, God is for me.
And so, on this last Sunday of Advent we pray;
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without.