long, dear Savior, O how long
bright hour delay?
around, ye wheels of time,
the promised day.
Fly swift around,
ye wheels of time, and bring the promised day! We, too, know the impatience
and desire of which Isaac Watts sang in 1701. We know it in the hours before
leaving work for the weekend or for a vacation. We know it in the minutes
before the dismissal bell rings on the last day of school. We know it in
the final months of pregnancy. We know it each year in the four weeks of
Advent. O, how long?!
It’s a question
and a sigh, this impatience. It’s both demand and desire. And properly
so: We sing out, we sigh “O, how long?!” in response to a promise — the
promise Christ made to us to return in glory and to draw us to the divine
heart. That promise is true: Christ’s first coming, Christ’s birth in human
flesh at Bethlehem in Judea, makes it so. Christ’s sacramental coming now,
Christ’s presence in the word proclaimed and preached, Christ’s presence
under signs of bread and wine, make it so. So sing out and sigh impatiently
for Christ’s second coming!
We can find
this impatience — if we look with hope in our hearts instead of giving
in to perpetual nay-saying doom — in the culture at large at this time
of year. Yes, even in the much-maligned (by homilists, catechists, and
liturgists every Advent!) secular, materialist “holiday” (read “shopping
and spending”) season. But wait. The 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner
spoke of the “anonymous Christian.” He meant that all people, deep down,
yearn for God and for faith, even when they are not overtly aware that
they do. Could it not be that all the frenzy and consuming at this time
of year is an unexamined impatience for the promise of Christ to be fulfilled?
(And being unexamined, no wonder it misses the mark.)
Yes, it is
misdirected to think that by “getting and spending,” as the 19th-century
poet William Wordsworth put it, we will hasten Christ’s return or even
properly vent our desire for it. (In his poem “The World is too much with
us,” Wordsworth says, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: /
Little we see in Nature that is ours.”) But being misdirected is pretty
standard fare for us human beings. And there is hope for being redirected,
rightly directed, when we are able to acknowledge what is legitimate at
the root of all that we sometimes scowl at during this season of the year.
The longing, the desiring, even the demanding for God to make good on the
promise — at root, it is all holy. To paraphrase St. Paul, “We do not always
know how to long, how to desire, how to demand of God what God has promised
as we ought. So the Spirit longs, desires, and demands from deep within
instead of grousing this year that the retail industry has co-opted our
season of waiting, we can search the horizons of the shopping mall for
signs of anonymous Christians trying to long, trying to desire, trying
to demand of God in healthy, holy ways. And perhaps we can see the misguided
consumerism and instant gratification and refusal to wait as opportunities
for evangelization, unexamined corners of the human heart waiting for good
news and redemption. Blessed John XXIII quietly posed the challenge in
An Invitation to Hope (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967):
In the daily
life of my office, I sometimes hear opinions which disturb me. They are
expressed by people who, zealous though they may be, lack prudence and
judgment in their evaluation of human events. They can see nothing but
calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. Over and over
again they say that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages,
I must disagree
with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting worse disasters.
The errors and faults of a human spirit that is tempted to concentrate
exclusively on enjoying the results of modern scientific research
[substitute materialism or consumerism or commercialism]
should indeed be deplored. But may God keep us from so exaggerating that
we come to believe that the heavens have closed over our heads, that darkness
has irrevocably fallen over all the world, and that there is nothing left
for us to do but weep as we plod along! Instead, we must take courage.
God has made people and nations curable! (42; italics mine).
Yes! God has
made us curable. Isaac Watts’ third (and last) stanza sings:
His own soft
hand shall wipe the tear
and groans and griefs and fears
itself shall die!
And pains and
groans and griefs and fears and death itself shall die! Herein lies the
hope inherent in Advent. Herein is the good news that — like the young
virgin with child — we hasten over hills and through crowded department
store aisles to bring to our cousins, themselves pregnant with the possibility
of being cured.
For we are
entering into our winter Passover, and Christmas is nothing if not our
Easter in December. Read the signs! A baby born at midnight, swaddled as
in a shroud, laid in a feedbox as food for ravenous ruined people (“Unless
you eat my body and drink my blood, you have no life within you”). Strangers
showing up as if for some macabre and horrible parody of a baby shower,
bringing funerary items for the newborn: gold to hold down the eyes of
the dead (and, as was customary at the time, coins for the dead to carry
in the mouth to pay the fare required to carry the soul to the other side);
myrrh to embalm the corpse; frankincense for the funeral pyre.
No need to
take my word for this. Listen to the unexpurgated wisdom of the earlier
versions of Christmas carols. Take this verse from the original “We Three
Kings,” for example:
Myrrh is mine;
its bitter perfume
life of gathering gloom;
sighing, bleeding, dying,
the stone-cold tomb.
O, star of
But there is
another verse, a final verse that follows:
behold Him arise,
King and God
O, star of
The cure is
achieved! “And death itself shall die!” In the great eucharistic prayer,
we acclaim: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory.”
months of the year are, in fact, the right moment to pay close attention
to the final verses of the hymns and carols that we sing. The venerable
Sans Day Carol is another good example:
Now the holly
bears a berry as blood it is red.
bore Jesus who rose from the dead.
And Mary she
bore us Jesus, our saviour for to be.
And the first
tree in the greenwood it was the holly.
The first tree
in the greenwood? The firstborn from the dead! Christ, once born in humble
human flesh, now firstborn from the dead. Nations and people are curable
— indeed are cured! (It’s already begun. It began with Easter. “Fly swift
around, ye wheels of time, / and bring the promised day!”) So again, as
we urgently pray (demand of God?) at Mass: “Keep us free … from
all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior,
to heaven replies
And the response
of the baptized to the Lord’s own prayer? “For the kingdom, the power
and the glory are yours, now and for ever.” The power and the glory!
Could this not be what we really “want for Christmas”? Power. Glory. Not
for ourselves — we have tried that already and know all too well how that
ended up. But rather for the power and the glory to be where it belongs
— with God?
verse of Isaac Watt’s hymn curiously calls something strange “glorious.”
Imagine one of the creepy scenes of devastation from Steven Spielberg’s
recent remake of War of the Worlds when Watts sings of “rolling
Lo! What a
glorious sight appears
To our believing
and sea are passed away,
And the old
The earth and
sea are passed away, and the old rolling skies! Glorious? This is not a
call to some whacked-out millennialism, some sick yearning for nuclear
obliteration. Instead, it’s a way of saying what eyes of faith are seeing.
The earth and seas — this wondrous, lovely earth and these startling, beautiful
seas — are already being transformed by the Easter mysteries. (“Your kingdom
come! On earth as it is in heaven.”) It’s already begun. Easter changes,
is changing, will yet change everything. Now and forever.
and not yet
So no wonder
we sigh with impatience, find desire turning into demand: “Fly swift around,
ye wheels of time, / and bring the promised day!” We glimpse that day in
baptism and in chrismation. We taste that day already here and now in Eucharist.
We experience that day as being both “now” and “not yet.” Begun and
still in process. Begun and yet to be fulfilled. Impatience and
to do these Advent eves, then, to hum, to sing, to sigh along with a contemporary
of Isaac Watts, the Abbe Simon Joseph Pellegrin (1663–1745):
O come, divine
in silence waits the day
shall sing its triumph,
night and show your face,
And bid us
hail the dawn of grace.
We, too, know
impatience and desire. May our prayer, our song, the substance of our joyful
hope this Advent and always be: “O, how long?!” LC
(DavidP@rpinet.com) is the editor of this magazine. He lives and writes,
sings and sighs in Chicago.
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