In spiritual parlance, an “icon” is an image of something – or more likely, someone – deeply representative of one’s Christian faith; and which serves as a means and inspiration for deep prayer and meditation. Sometimes an icon can be a great work of art: from the earliest days of Christianity, in fact, there have been countless depictions of Christ and from the Gospels that have served such a purpose. Sometimes it’s part of the act of worship: a cross on the wall, a candle on the altar or lit from an advent wreath; but an icon might also be found in nature, for instance; or in some very powerful image or memory from one’s life. Wherever it comes from, an icon is meant to be as “a window to heaven or a doorway to the sacred.” To quote something I read recently on this subject, “When you are standing in front of an icon, it is as if you are looking through a window into the heavenly world of… mystery.”
I tell you this because for me, one such icon is an old-fashioned kerosene lantern; specifically, the old kerosene lantern that used to hang out in front of my father’s little hunting camp out in the woods of Northern Maine.
I know… that doesn’t seem like something particularly “religious” or anything special. And, to be sure, it wasn’t: it was just this old lantern; as I recall it was more than a bit rusty and timeworn, and probably came out of somebody’s barn. And for all practical purposes, even where camping was concerned, it was pretty much obsolete; a throwback to the days before propane lights and Coleman lanterns!
Nonetheless, this particular lantern continues to hold a sacred place in my memory because back then every night we ever spent in that camp, part of the ritual was to makes sure that that lantern was properly lit and hung out on the cedar log beam that hung out from the front of the cabin, where it would burn and softly glow throughout all those incredibly cold November nights; providing light to the ones who’d get up in the night to find wood to stoke the fire in the woodstove; or quite often serving as a beacon of welcome to those who arrived at the camp well into a dark evening. Sometimes that was me; and what I’ll always remember is walking a mile or so into camp along this old woods road – pitch dark, save for my trusty $1.99 Eveready flashlight and whatever moonlight there happened to be – struggling to find my way in the darkness; but then, finally, to come up around this little knoll and see off in the distance this dim little flame, a light that literally and figuratively pierced the darkness! Because then you knew; you’d been through the long journey, you’d come through the darkness, but now you were home… and it was the light that welcomed you.
That’s why a kerosene lantern serves as something of an icon for me; and actually that’s what I love about this first “song of Christmas” we’re looking at this morning: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
In a way, this particular hymn is a bit atypical of most of what we sing during this time of the year. To begin with, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is probably the oldest Christmas carol that is still sung in this modern era; it dates back to the ninth century, and was based on medieval prayers that were originally sung in Latin in churches and monasteries. It’s also a song written in a minor key, in contrast to so many of the Christmas carols that are written major keys and are very triumphant in tone. Indeed, there’s something a little dark about this piece of music; and the words do nothing but bear this out: “O Come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appear.” Later on there’s reference to “the gloomy clouds of night” and “death’s dark shadows.” It’s not exactly a song that’s full of holiday cheer; and it’s really no surprise to me that many times over the years when I’ve chosen this hymn for worship, I’ve had parishioners come back and ask me if next time, we can just skip ahead to “Joy to the World.”
And yet when you get to the chorus, at every verse that joy is there in the plaintive, yearning call to “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” You see, what we have here is an evocation of why Jesus has come; this is a song that is designed to bring us back to days of the Old Testament and the time before the Messiah’s coming; this is a musical journey into the midst of Israel’s darkness, as well as an expression of its great and unending hope that Emmanuel will come in God’s time to bring peace and light to the world and our lives; which is truly cause for rejoicing!
As such, then, this song exists as far more than just some melody line from an ancient time, but as a truth as real for us today as it was in biblical times; for we also know, do we not, what it is to dwell in the darkness (and not just when the power goes out, as it has here in New Hampshire this weekend!); the darkness of a world that so often seems to be far removed from God’s purposes and priorities. Moreover, so many of us know what it is to be enveloped by sadness and injustice in our own lives; to have felt the dark twinges of hopelessness taking root in our hearts. So yes, we do know darkness, and as we wait for Christ’s return and the indwelling of his kingdom, we also long for that blessed moment of light and rejoicing.
There’s one particular verse in this song that really affirms this for me; it’s the second verse in our hymnal that reads, “O come, thou dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here.” That’s actually a reference to a verse found in this morning’s Gospel Reading, the “Song of Zechariah” from the first chapter of Luke, in which it’s said, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” or in this case, given that the words of the song are drawn from the King James translation of scripture: “the dayspring from high has visited us.” Dayspring is about sunrise; more to the point, it’s about sunrise “breaking in” to the darkness. From one very old translation to one that’s fairly new, I love how this is said in “The Message:” “God’s sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.”
And isn’t that, ultimately, what we need… a sunrise to break in upon our darkness? Anyone who’s ever had to fumble around in the darkness in the hours before dawn knows that without some kind of light, the best that can be achieved is to wander aimlessly; and so it is with life and living when we don’t have the light of hope to show us the way. When God speaks this promise, that “Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel,” it is indeed a promise that extends to us as well and one of which is worthy of rejoicing!
When we sing this advent song, friends, we are singing about sure and certain hope that comes to us from God; understanding of course, that when we use this word HOPE we are not simply talking about an optimistic spirit that expects everything to work out positively. Hope, as the heart of faith understands it, is putting everything we are and know and ever seek to be in the hands of God; knowing that God’s sunrise will break into even the darkest of our nights.
You’ll notice that I was very purposeful in referring to this song as an “advent” song of Christmas; that’s because this is a song that looks to what’s coming, which is what the word “advent” means: to anticipate God’s coming and what God will be doing when he comes. Truly, our advent hope has always been about how “God is working his purpose out” as his future unfolds: we see it in the birth of a tiny baby in a manger of Bethlehem; it’s there in a sealed tomb that becomes the place of resurrection; it’s found among the grieving who nonetheless are walking calmly through the valley of death; and it’s utterly proclaimed by the whole people of God, those who have walked in darkness but who have suddenly seen a great light. In our worship we always rejoice in what God has done; the season of Advent is our celebration of what God has yet to do in amazing and remarkable ways that we can’t even yet begin to imagine… in other words, if I might coin a popular and familiar phrase we have in this tradition, not only is God still speaking, God is still doing!
Our other scripture reading for this morning, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, beautifully expresses this; it’s a brief and wonderful passage in which Paul acknowledges all that God has already done in Jesus Christ, and yet actively anticipates what is about to take place soon, and very soon. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” he says; “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Yes, though Christ has come still we know what it is to be in darkness; but we also know that by God’s grace and plan, this night is nearly done, and it will be daylight soon: and for now, we rejoice in watching and waiting for that “Son-rise” to break in its fullness.
The sanctuary where I led worship while I was a pastor in Ohio was very much a cathedral style, and was filled with some of the most colorful and beautifully ornate stained glass windows I’ve ever seen. They were designed in such a way that each one depicted a particular part of the gospel story, and if you walked around the sanctuary you experienced a detailed rendering of the whole story of Jesus; and when the sun shined through these windows as it did mid-morning (and often during worship!), it was amazing.
But there was also this other large, round “rose window” that was at the front of the church over the altar; and it, too, was meticulously crafted, filled with a wide array of religious imagery and incredible flourishes; it was, to say the least, an impressive work of art (and an icon in the truest sense!) but the sun was never able to shine through that window. This was because years before, the congregation had built on to the church building starting behind the altar; and in the process of the project, the builders were forced to block the window from outside light.
Now, they’d devised a way of back lighting the Rose Window with a whole series of spotlights, so it was illuminated; but given that there were also lights shining from within the sanctuary and which reflected off the ceiling, the color and the detail of the stained glass got somewhat lost and you never really got to see the window in all of its glory… until one night, quite by accident, getting ready to leave this pastor managed remember to turn off all the lights in the sanctuary, except for the Rose Window; and as I walked back through the sanctuary to hit that particular switch, I discovered that the light that was pouring that window in the utter darkness was… utterly brilliant!
I remember sitting there in that darkened church, all by myself, for the longest time just marveling at that beauty and power of that window; and I also realized I’d come found something of a parable for the advent season, the gist of which was that in order for us to truly appreciate the brilliance of the light that is coming into the world in the Christ of Christmas, it would do us good to truly recognize it in contrast to the darkness that surrounds us.
I do think it’s helpful for us in this Advent season that it’s not merely about waiting for the Christmas holiday to come; it’s also about keeping our hearts and minds wholly focused on God’s continuing advent in our lives by his Spirit, and in Christ’s return with the kingdom of God. And what that means for you and me is for us to finally and truly stop fumbling around in the darkness; focusing our hearts and lives so that we might be enabled to see, in all its brilliance and power, the light that our Lord is bringing to us so that we can come home to him.
“O Come, thou dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here…”
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry