The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation. You can read more from Jason at his blog,www.jasonbilbrey.com or follow him on Twitter at @JasonBilbrey.
A month ago, my daughter and I decorated the house for Christmas while my wife was out. (“Three weeks before Thanksgiving is too early,” she would have said. Scrooge.) Stockings on the mantle, mistletoe above the doorframe, tree by the window; our usual setup. We blasted the Bing Crosby, popped our popcorn and had a lovely time.
But it wasn’t until two weeks later when I was out shopping at the Salvation Army thrift store that the proverbial Christmas spirit hit me. They were playing Silent Night over the sound system. I realized that our Christmas celebrations and preparations had been suspiciously absent of baby Jesus.
Now, I am not one of those let’s-keep-Christ-in-Christmas, He’s-the reason-for-the-season kinds of Christian. I am pro-Santa. But I do revere the nativity story, as I do many biblical narratives, with a strange mixture of reluctant nostalgia for my deeply Evangelical upbringing and a set of genuine theological beliefs.
If there’s one theme that unites these two traditions — the plate-of-cookies-for-santa narrative and the candle-light-Christmas-Eve-service narrative — it’s comfort. The warmth of firelight. The familiarity of ritual. The excitement of anticipation. It’s all very comforting.
Yesterday, the church across the street from where we live did something very uncomfortable and untraditional. They filed out the doors and into the street chanting, “Hands up — Don’t shoot!” They held signs saying, “Black lives matter to God and us,” and “We can’t breathe,” and “Do Justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” They filled the intersection in front of my building and shut down traffic (with the help of law enforcement officers, it should be added).
(If any of you are unfamiliar with or confused by the anger behind these protests happening around the nation, be sure to read my friend Darren’s recent, piece here on the blog, “Why Ferguson Matters.” It’s excellent.)I watched all of this from my bathroom window. And I felt really proud of those church members, many of whom are neighbors in our building. I knew the community was racially diverse and very passionate about social justice issues, so it wasn’t surprising that they joined the dozens of other churches here in Chicago staging Sunday morning protests. But it did surprise me when they sung a Christmas hymn.
O come, o come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appears.
Emmanuel shall come to thee oh Israel.
O Come O Come Emmanuel is more of a dirge than a hymn. It has this dark, minor tune. It’s gorgeous, of course. But somber.
It’s also not so much about Christmas as about the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. A period of waiting. Not the gleeful anticipation kind of waiting. The groaning with pain and desperate for relief kind. The song is addressed to the nation of Israel under foreign occupation. They are waiting for a Messiah, a Savior who will free them from oppressive rule. It seems as though God has abandoned them, yet the song encourages them to watch for Emmanuel, “God with us,” to arrive.
It’s not merry. It’s not bright. It’s not comfortable. But, I realized, it’s the perfect song for this moment in our own nation. Israel faced injustice and we too face injustice. Israel needed peaceful governance and we too need peaceful governance. Israel eagerly waited for the coming King, and we too should look forward to Jesus’ second coming, when violence and corruption are eradicated — even as we work toward and operate within that Kingdom today.
Here’s what I learned: Protest is deeply Christmas.
The song continues:
Oh 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.
Emmanuel shall come to thee oh Israel.