Yesterday, as every first Sunday of Advent, I renewed an annual tradition. I showed up for church — and honestly, just showing up is a victory — so that I could cry my way through the singing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Every year I make it through the first verse, but right on cue, the fount begins flowing when my voice reaches for the first note of the refrain, the highest note of the hymn — “Rejoice!”
I feel a bit exposed saying all this out loud. I would rather keep my tears to myself. While it is happening, I try to keep it concealed. I stand in my pew and never reach up to wipe my wet cheeks. My kids notice and look bewildered, so I force a smile down at them and promise to explain later.
I would prefer to leave after the hymn, honestly. The first Sunday of Advent is “Hope” Sunday. Following the last collective sigh proclaiming that Emmanuel “shall come to thee, O Israel,” there are readings from the Scriptures. All the verbs will be in future tense. “The government will be upon his shoulder.” “Every valley shall be raised up, and every mountain and hill made low.” “A little child will lead them.” Then some poor preacher proclaims something about hope in the coming day of the Lord. No matter how clever she is, many of us will remain unconvinced, probably including the preacher.
The tears that dampen the pages of the hymnal below me are spilling out because I have had it up to my eyeballs with promises that never come. Enough with the future tense. Every earthly prop is giving way. I am now quite ready for the present tense. I do not think I am alone. The world is groaning for some prophet to speak a few living and active verbs — three-dimensional verbs, verbs that make some difference in the order of things, verbs that sing like Mary sings, songs that bind up the broken-hearted and set the captives free.
Things have been bad before, of course. Far worse for many people. Deranged heads of state with mouths full of lies, seeking to harm their subjects for personal gain, are a regular feature of history. One need look no further than the Christmas story to see that. The United States is not special, not as it regards opportunistic tyrants, anyway. But the litany of wrong does not stop at the U.S. borders. The Rohingya people are under attack. Honduras has its own Herod, and the unrest there is part of a long legacy of instability promoted by colonial powers. The exploitation of migrants around the world has taken the form of slave trade in Libya. O Come, Emmanuel. Come a bit more quickly, actually.
Only a few weeks ago, my family took a short trip to celebrate the baptism of my new niece. Following some readings and prayers, after a sermon, but before we kneeled to receive the Eucharist, the priest splashed my neice’s soft scalp with water. “Welcome to the resistance, dear one,” we said, her head still dripping. She babbled some response and grinned a drooly grin.
In a world like this one, having babies, and baptizing them, only makes sense for hopeful people. Otherwise, how could anyone make sense of bringing yet another soul into a place that keeps elevating Herod’s kin into the loftiest positions? The certainty of suffering, without hope, would certainly give rise to despair. In a world with children, though, despair is not a privilege we can afford.
But I suspect that being hopeful is not something you do. Nor is it grasped, as something to hold onto. Hope is not possessed, like a music box or a family Bible. It is more about what has hold of you. Hope grasps you with its sticky fingers. Its soft scalp leaves a damp mark on your shirt. Hope drags you back into a pew and wets your face with tears to help you remember your baptism.
The Book of Common Prayer says, “The bond that God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” Indissoluble — my God, what a word. More dense than water. It coats your mouth. The word grabs you. The long stems of the d’s and the b’s are a snare, the mouthful of l’s like swaddling clothes. The dots on the i’s swarm like pesky flies, always returning, sometimes tauntingly. The bond, like the word, will not go away. It cannot be dissolved, and it will not be dissolved, and it shall not be dissolved. And in the present, it is not being dissolved, though the waves toss to and fro, and though the world seems to be sinking in a deep mire. The baptismal font still has its hold.
Hope stills calls us back, though sometimes the hearers can be terribly wooden-headed. Cruelly so. It is hope, I guess that keeps calling me back into that pew to sing one more time. It keeps turning me around, pointing me upward to catch a breath before the next wave. And the next wave is most assuredly coming, and the one after that. It will not always be clear, in the roiling world, what to do, or even which way is up. Yet hope will still call, and have us to do its bidding, even if some days that is only to light a single purple candle and sing — Rejoice! — into the dark night.