We Need Emmanuel
By Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking
There was a time in my life when I thought that I understood Advent, but I didn’t. Growing up in a United Methodist pastor’s household, we always had an Advent wreath on our dining room table and each evening we would light the appropriate number of candles and pray together. During that time, if anyone had asked me to explain Advent, I could have told them that it was the four weeks leading up to Christmas and that each week another candle was lighted to signify which week to observe. As far as I was concerned, there were no other intricacies related to the observance.
As I moved into my college years, my observance of Advent was enhanced by all of the musical performances in which I particpated, especially the annual Symphonic Choir concert. My freshman year we performed A Cantata for Christmas by British composer John Gardner. One year we performed Handel’s Messiah. So, my Advent observance was focused on performing really good Christmas music and so the depth of my understanding was not increased.
It was the second week of Advent during my first year seminary in Washington, DC that a fuller knowledge and understanding of Advent began to take place. Working in a church and helping to plan worship for Advent allowed me to spend a hours studying the passages of Advent and helped me to begin to think about Advent as waiting, observing, repenting, hoping, watching.
It was that fall, living in DC, the nation’s capital that I also began to think a lot about nuclear war and the possibility of such a war. In the mid 1980’s there was much concern about nuclear threat, as there should have been. Living in the nation’s capital caused great anxiety for me. I realized about mid way through November that I was anxious and living in fear.
Right before I left to go home for Thanksgiving, one of the networks show a movie called The Day After, which was about a city in Kansas that was hit by a nuclear bomb and the chaos that resulted. Many of our professors had strongly recommended that we watch it. There were many groups of friends gathering to view it together and then talk about it. When the time came I was so anxious that I could not go to watch it. I sat in my room all that evening in the dark. I knew that I was fearful. I knew that I was anxious. I knew that I was afraid, really afraid for the first time in my life.
In December, during exam week, I finally got up enough courage to tell someone about my anxiety and fear. One night, my best friend and I decided to walk about a mile to an ice cream shop to celebrate the end of exams. Clark and I were walking along Wisconsin Ave. and I began talking about my fears. I remember stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, stomping my foot, and saying: “I just want Jesus to come back and fix this mess.”
In that moment, I got Advent. I got Emmanuel. Advent is a longing, a waiting, a hoping, a preparation for the One who saves to come and save us. That longing is strong. It is deep. It is something solid that brings us closer and closer to understanding our world and wanting there to be justice and peace, the kind of justice and peace that comes directly from living in Emmanuel, God With Us, where love is the strongest emotion there is and hate is abolished and can no longer exist. In that moment, I felt the longing deep in my heart and I had glimpses of what life could be like with Emmanuel, coming to us and fixing the chaos that we live in.
Every year, I reflect on that moment in my life. I am grateful for that moment, for the realizations that came to me that night in the middle of Wisconsin Ave. in the middle of one of the most powerful cities in the world. I have told this story many, many times and I have written about it before because that moment was one of the most powerful moments of my life. That moment brought to me the realization that Emmanuel, God With Us was a longing that I carry deep in my heart, that I look for constantly, and that I strive to reflect in my daily life.
As I began thinking about that moment this year, in the midst of the chaos and struggle and hatred that seems to have grown more vivid and powerful this year, I realized that there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was missing. This understanding of Advent and Emmanuel has grown in me for thirty years, it satisfied my desire for celebrating Advent in a profound way. And yet, this year, there felt as if a part of my observance was missing.
One day last week as I was listening to Handel’s Messiah it hit me. All these years I have had a longing for Advent, for Emmanuel, for Jesus to come and fix the mess that we create each passing year and have created for thousands of years. In Messiah the baritone soloist sings the words of the prophet Malachi 3:2:
But who may abide the day of His coming and who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner’s fire.
It is aria to sit up and take notice. It is a prophecy to think on profoundly and to hear deep in our hearts. Would I be able to abide the day of God’s coming? Do I measure up? Could I stand without “quaking in my boots.” Of course not!
However, the prophet reminds us that God doesn’t come to us wanting to catch us off guard and punish us. No indeed. God, is like refiner’s fire, the tool used in making something that appears useless and turning it into something so beautiful, so valuable—gold and silver. Emmanuel, God With Us comes to us to refine us so that you and I have a part in saving this world, loving this world, changing the world.
It would be so easy for us to sit back and pray for Emmanuel to come and make things just and fair, but without our refining, without our participation in the reality of Emmanuel, without us reflecting the Light and Grace of God, through Christ, without us understanding that Emmanuel means God With Us, not God without Us, the justice and peace that this world deserves, desires, and needs will never be a reality.
Emmanuel, God With Us, is a gift that God gives to the world, not so that we can continue living as we have, but so that God can save us and refine us, so God can live through us and we can live though God, so that we can work together for this world to see salvation, justice and peace. We need refining. We need Emmanuel.
To God alone be Glory.