Tuesday, December 21, 2004

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

Christmas is now just a few days away. As I’ve said before it’s been a very quiet Christmas season for Nancy and me. We made another day-trip yesterday, spending a good part of the morning and some of the early afternoon in Atchison, Kansas. It’s a great little town, quiet, filled with old Victorian homes that are still well-kept. But what Atchison is most noted for is that it’s the birthplace of aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

While we took note of the Victorian homes, the Earhart memorabilia, and the quiet pace of Atchison, this day-trip was all about shopping at Nell Hill’s. Nancy had heard much about Nell’s, so this visit was in order.

We left three hours after we arrived, a shopping bag in tow.

It was well worth the drive. We’re going to recommend it to our friends. I think for Nancy and the girls it would be a great way to spend a day.

Nancy asked me on the way home if I’d enjoyed the day. I told her I had. She smiled as she looked over at me. “I think you enjoy watching me enjoying myself, don’t you?” I nodded back.

I wonder now if I’m communicating. As I look back at the few words I’ve written so far I’m tempted to fill in some of the sparse places I’ve left behind. I’m tempted, but I’ve decided not to give in to the temptation. I trust you, dear reader, to fill in those sparse places in the dialogue yourself.

This has been the most reflective Christmas I’ve ever had. It’s almost as though I’ve been in a dream-like state. As I dream there’s a broad brush that now fills the landscape of my heart and mind with pictures and dreams of things that have been, things that are, and things I hope for in the days to come.

For me those thoughts, hopes, and visions seem now to be best expressed in the traditional Christmas carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The words to the carol date back to antiphons from the 12th century, nearly a thousand years ago now. The music comes from a funeral processional. Together, the words and music express the prophetic hopes and dreams from those who’ve long since shed their mortal coils. They stand now as witnesses calling us to also reflect, hope and dream:

“Words: Com­bined from var­i­ous an­ti­phons by an un­known au­thor, pos­si­bly in the 12th Cen­tu­ry (Ve­ni, ve­ni Eman­u­el); trans­lat­ed from La­tin to Eng­lish by
bio("John M. Neale","n/e/neale_jm")
John M. Neale, Med­iae­val Hymns, 1851. Neale’s orig­in­al trans­l­a­tion be­gan, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Em­man­u­el.”

“Music: “Veni Em­man­u­el,” from a 15th Cen­tu­ry pro­cess­ion­al of French Fran­cis­can nuns (the set­ting for the fu­ner­al hymn Libera me); ar­ranged by
bio("Thom­as Hel­more","h/e/l/helmore_t")
Thom­as Hel­more in the Hymn­al Not­ed, Part II (Lon­don: 1856)
MI­DI, score).”

“The lyrics echo a num­ber of pro­phet­ic themes. The ti­tle comes from the well known Isai­ah 7:14: “Be­hold, a vir­gin shall con­ceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Im­man­u­el.” Im­man­u­el is He­brew for “God with us.” The “Rod of Jesse” refers to Isai­ah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jes­se”; Jesse was the fa­ther of Da­vid, se­cond king of Is­ra­el. “Day-Spring” comes from Za­cha­ri­as, fa­ther of John the Bap­tist, in Luke 1:78: “The day­spring from on high has vis­it­ed us.” “Thou Key of Da­vid” is in Isai­ah 22:22: “The key of the house of Da­vid will I lay up­on his shoul­der,” which in turn re­fers to Isai­ah 9:6 “The gov­ern­ment shall be up­on His shoul­der.”

The words seem so archaic nowadays. That’s because, I believe, at a time when time itself does indeed seem to be money, they call on us to stop and reflect. And so, dear reader, I now reflect and ask you to reflect along with me.

The words of the first stanza speak to me of a longing that, while it has been fulfilled, will one day be consummated, completed:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

As I listen I see in my minds eye that like the prophets of old, like those who long for Jesus’ first appearing, I am, and we are, in a sense exiles in this world. The beauty of the words, and the historic reality of Jesus’ birth is that, while it did happen in this world, calls us to another. It’s world that’s inhabited by the poor in spirit, a place for the meek and mournful, a world where the realities are mercy and peace and righteousness.

It’s a world in which the order seems out of touch with this world. It’s not a world in which the race goes to the swift or the battle to the strong. It’s a world in which the victory goes to those who, as my generation’s poet laureate has said, “can divide the word of truth.”

I think next of my current reality. Why am I here? I’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge in over sixty years. I’ve become wiser as time has passed. And yet I know that, day by day, there is more. As I think these thoughts the words of the ancient carol speak once more to me:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Yes…..Yes…..Yes! It’s something I’ve known for many years now and I must learn it anew each day. I read the words of the carol and I contemplate those who centuries ago expressed in such a beautiful way what I now feel:

Q. 1. “What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”
1.”Is man a reasonable creature? Yes: for there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding, Job 32:8. Has he greater capacities than the brutes ? Yes: God teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven, Job 35:11”.
2. “Is man his own maker? No: it is God that hath made us, and not we ourselves, Psalm 100:3. Is he then his own master? No: there is a Lord over us, Psalm 12:4. Is he his own carver? No: should it be according to thy mind, Job 34:33. Is he his own end? No: for none of us lives to himself, or dies to himself, Romans 14:7.”
3.” Is it your business in the world to serve the flesh? No: for we are not debtors to the flesh, that we should live after the flesh, Rom. 8:12. Is it to pursue the world ? No: for we are not of the world, John 17:16.”
4. “Is your happiness bound up in the creature? No: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit, Eccl. 1:14. Will the riches of the world make you happy? No: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth, Luke 12:15. Will the praise and applause of men make you happy? No: for it is vain glory, Gal. 5:26. Will sport and pleasure make you happy? No: for the wise man said of laughter, It is mad, and of mirth, What doth it? Eccl. 2:2. Can the gain of the world make you happy? No, for what is a man profited, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Matthew 16:26.”
5.” Is God then your chief end? Yes, for of him, and through him, and to him are all things, Rom. 11:36. Were you made for him? Yes: this people have I formed for myself, Isa. 43:21. Were you redeemed for him? Yes: ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price, 1 Cor. 6:19, 20.”
6.” Is it your chief business to glorify God? Yes: we must glorify God in our body and in our spirit, which are God's, I Cor. 6:20. Must this be ultimately designed in all our actions? Yes: do all to the glory of God, 1 Cor. 10:31. Is God glorified by our praises? Yes: he that offers praise, glorifies me, Ps. 50:23. And is he glorified by our works? Yes: herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit, John 15:8.”
7.” Is God your chief good? Yes: for happy is the people whose God is the Lord, Ps. 144:15. Does all good come from him? Yes: for with him is the fountain of life, Ps. 36:9. And is all good enjoyed in him? Yes: the Lord is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup, Ps. 16:5”.
8.” Is it your chief happiness then to have God's favour? Yes: for in his favour is life, Ps. 30:5. Is that the most desirable good? Yes: for his loving kindness is better than life, Ps. 63:3. Do you desire it above any good? Yes: Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us, Ps. 4:6, 7. And should you give all diligence to make it sure? Yes: herein we labour, that whether present or absent, we may be accepted of the Lord, 2 Cor. 5:9.”
9. “Is communion with God in grace here the best pleasure? Yes: it is good for me to draw near to God, Ps. 73:28. Is the vision and fruition of God in glory hereafter the best portion ? Yes: for in his presence there is fulness of joy, Ps. 16:11. Will you therefore set your heart upon this chief good? Yes: Lord, whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee; when my flesh and my heart fail, God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever, Ps. 73:25, 26.”

There it is. That humble birth turned conventional wisdom on its head. It signaled that there was a new paradigm for power and wisdom Who had broken into this world. Our fore bearers understood this well. I wonder now if we in this generation do. We seem confounded these days. We grasp for temporal power and momentary gain, professing ourselves wise, while the reality Jesus introduced as is a radically different kind of wisdom, a kind that God, by sovereign choice, has chosen to “confound the things that are mighty.”

I reflect on these things and dream of a day when the watchwords will no longer be left or right, but, as Holy Writ says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” I dream of a day when we who cherish Jesus’ birth will become like Moses, who unlike his fellows, knew God’s ways while they only knew His acts.

I sit now also reflecting in peace. Yet I know that much of this world is far from peaceful. Sons and daughters of my countrymen are fighting and dying in a foreign war. While our sons and daughters serve far from the homes and families they love, terror is not far away from the city of Jesus’ birth. The city that Jesus wept over before His crucifixion now seems to be a bargaining chip in a cruel diplomatic game without resolution. Closer to home a heinous crime has been committed. And even closer a truly good man close to us has been stricken.

There seems to be so little that makes sense, so much in this world that is filled with grief and pain. It’s at these times I often drive along the Flint Hills and cry out for the consummation of the ages to come. Like those of old I long for the day when the words of the ancient carol will be fulfilled:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

I believe that day is coming. I’m more ready now than I’ve ever been. As I sit here contemplating my age I plead for it to come soon. “Oh Lord, straighten out the crooked places.” “Oh Lord, make things right, make them as they should be.”

As I reflect I’m one with a great brotherhood of those who’ve come before me. Their days were no less confusing than mine, and yet they sought wisdom and found it Personified. They saw as much, or even more, pain and sorrow than we in this age see, but they refused to succumb to it. They refused to let it overpower them. They held out great hope that the nations would one day be bound together, that the divisions would cease, and that Jesus would be our King of Peace.

And so I close with this. I can do no less. We can do no less. The glad tidings that rang out in the fields surrounding Bethlehem must also ring out in our age. A Savior is born! The hope of consummation that filled the hearts of those who came before us must also fill ours. He is coming again! Maranatha!

Christmas blessings to you, dear reader. May His wisdom and peace fill your heart this season.


ALa said...

Hoping that you and your wife (and your entire family of course) have a wonderful Christmas!

violet said...

Phil, this is grand! Grand thoughts, grand writing. I hope you stay in your dream-like state. May you and yours have a blessed Christmas.

Avalon's Knight Dreamer said...

This is my first vivit to your blog and I must say this is a haven for the soul. Much have I learned and much have I been convivted of. May I say as a female it is a breath of fresh air to read your words about your wife and it is sweet that you include her in your writings. I recently attempted to teach a homeschooled Latin course and the love for it has coused a great couriousity within me. There is so much more I want to learn but will never be able to so. I have the book: The Confessions of Saint Augustine and I hope to one day understand it. It is a very old copy and it is a treasure to me. Thank you for your words that honor our Lord. Kathy