My heart is full. There are many times over the past weeks within which I could have paused to write that sentence and reflect, many glittering moments of seeking and finding the bright-shining promises of God. Yet out of all of them this seems the right particular point to stop and get thoughts down on paper.
This is because yesterday, November 27th, was the first day of the New Year. Confused?! That’s because it’s not the New Year according to the normal calendar; rather it’s New Year’s Day because the first Sunday of advent (that precious time of waiting, anticipating, hoping) is the first day of the liturgical year. I love how the year begins in longing and waiting – this brings me great joy.
It brings me great joy because it summarises what God’s been teaching me, whispering to me in love, over the past little while. At this moment of reflective pause I can see myself leaving what has gone behind and pressing on to what’s ahead, entering advent with hope buoying the longing I have recently felt so keenly. If you read the words I post on here you’ll have picked up on this longing and seeking over the last two months.
At the start of October I wrote about fragility. I felt often empty and unseeing, and it was hard to grasp hold of God’s truth. Yet God showed me that ‘even though we are fragile, mortal, made of dust, his love makes us eternal – he is with us from one end of eternity to another.’
At the end of October, I picked up on this same theme, dwelling on the words that Jesus said: ‘Blessed is the one who has not seen, but yet believed’. He said it to Thomas-the-Doubter, and he says it to us too: Blessed are the ones who are unseeing and feeling-low, as they choose to walk forwards on the strength of God’s promise.
A week or so into November, I was still in the untangling of this very same tension: not seeing, but yet believing. I brokenly wrote of the ‘wilderness time’ I’d felt; I concluded with the image of God’s promises as bright-shining ‘advent lights’ which illuminate, step-by-step, the path of life.
In essence, God has taught me through these confusing, chaos-feeling months that He still is – and that He still is with us, with me. From His voice I chose (and I choose) to seek His promises and His face, to search after and pursue and hold onto and dwell in the Light overcoming the darkness.
I pursue and wait on the voice of God to speak.
And His voice has spoken – it is always speaking, in fact. Open His Word; look around at the world shot through with His glory. God overwhelmingly graces us when He speaks; He strengthens us in our longing by giving us hope, giving us joy.
This truth rings out in Isaiah 40 as the prophet proclaims the promise of God:
those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles…
When we wait on God in despair and doubt and darkness he renews our strength. He will make us to soar through crisp gold-and-blue autumn skies as winter draws its cloak around us; even as darkness descends he will make us to soar on his eagles-wings because we have his salvation’s joy burning deep down in our souls, our eyes.
I was reminded of this joy last night, too, at Clare College’s stunning advent Carol Service. Based around the ‘O’ Antiphons, this service gave voice to our deep-down-desperate longings to see God. The antiphons capture different characteristics of Christ, and they call on him to come – to come and teach us; deliver us; bring the prisoner out of the prison, or the darkness; to enlighten those in darkness; to save mankind; to save us.
They express deep longing, longing equivalent to a wordless howl, a cry of an ‘O’ – which is in fact used instead of the antiphons in a South Spain tradition. At the start of the Order of Service, we read these words about the desperate cry:
This [‘O’] was intended to express the intense longing of the nations for the coming of the Redeemer. This wordless expression of longing helps us to understand the visceral desire intrinsic to these antiphons, not least so that they are able to carry the full variety of human hopes, longing, and desires – a kind of need which can only be met by God.
There’s deep longing, yet (that beautiful word) there is also deep hope. Our longing will be – can only be – met by God. And as longing and hope collide, joy erupts, sparkles: we are lifted on eagles’ wings, given purpose and flight and vision.
Joy sparkles because our hope is not a mere wish or whim – it’s a certainty. God’s promises are guaranteed by His character, which means that they will always shine bright, always be fulfilled. There is nothing dark about a string of advent-lights, only joy. This truth is reflected in the antiphons too: each first letter of the antiphons (minus the ‘O’) taken backwards spells ERO CRAS…which in Latin means ‘tomorrow, I will come.’
Thus we cry out in advent ‘How long, O Lord?’ – and in crying out we not only express our longing but our hope, our trust that he will come.
God, your whole self and message to us is treasure, a pearl of great price. A light, bright-shining promise in a world that is dark; sustaining joy even when we are still only on the edges of knowing you. We are unexpectedly, surprisingly, held in your throne room wrapped up in your love. This certain hope gives our longing wings: purpose, new vision, joy.
So Father let us travel the journey with joy. Let us shout as we walk; sing songs of Light to push back the dark. May we seek your face in prayer, in the music of a prayer, and let us find in the prayer both the longing and the hope.
One song we sing on the journey of advent, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, crystallises it all. ‘O Come’ cries with longing, urgency, desperation – it is the cry of our hearts, the howl. ‘Emmanuel’ trusts that the cry will be answered, containing within it the promise fulfilled, the certain hope. The promise and hope of God-with-us always, even to the very end of the age. It is eagles-wings joy and light in the darkness. It is joy.
May we lift our eyes and believe. O Come, Emmanuel – we wait with hope.