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    LC Home
O, How Long?!
David Philippart

How long, dear Savior, O how long
Shall this bright hour delay?
Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,
And bring 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 us.” 


So perhaps 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, is disintegrating.
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
From ev’ry weeping eye,
And pains and groans and griefs and fears
And death 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. 

Easter in December

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
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. 

O, star of wonder … 

But there is another verse, a final verse that follows: 

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and sacrifice,
Heaven sings, “Hallelujah!”
“Hallelujah!” Earth replies. 

O, star of wonder … 

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.” 

These final 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.
Then Mary 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, Jesus Christ.” 

Earth 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? 

The middle 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 skies”: 

Lo! What a glorious sight appears
To our believing eyes!
The earth and sea are passed away,
And the old rolling skies. 

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. 

Now 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 joyful hope. 

What better 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 Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away. 

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the 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

David Philippart (DavidP@rpinet.com) is the editor of this magazine. He lives and writes, sings and sighs in Chicago. 


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