I’ve begun listening to holiday music early this year. Advent, in so many ways, has taken on a new meaning this year. A longing for Christ to come—to make things right, to be “God with us” in a very tangible way—is palpable in my heart. As I was listening to the music in my office, the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came on. This song based on an old poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has captured my heart for many years, and this time I heard the refrain “And in despair I bowed my head.” The tears started streaming because I feel despair this year. Despair threatens to swallow me at seemingly every moment.
It’s been a hard year, which feels trite to say at this point because we all have collectively had a hard year.
It’s been a hard year, which feels trite to say at this point because we all have collectively had a hard year. For me personally, in addition to the ever-present hardness of a global pandemic, a divisive election season, the task of parenting small humans, and the work of pastoring a church, we also recently lost a beloved family member suddenly one Sunday morning. After receiving this tragic news, we found out that, just a few hours prior, another family member had suffered a stroke and was fighting for her life. “In despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said.” I almost longed for the song to end there. Grief is a weird thing at times because, while you wish to be rid of it, you also long for it to be all-consuming—because how can the world continue to go on in the same way without this person? How can the sun continue to rise and set? How can we continue to go to work, eat meals, laugh, and play in a world that has forever been changed? And if the grief is gone, will that mean that this person has faded too?
But the song continued, much like the sun continues to rise. “Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” The last thing I heard our loved one say to us was a prayer request. He asked that we would continue to have hope, even in the midst of difficult days. It was almost prophetic—that we, God’s people, would remain hopeful in the midst of dark days. When it’s hard to be hopeful. When it doesn’t make sense. When you want to hang your head in despair and allow it to consume you. When you ask, “Where are you, God?”
That’s the ultimate message of Advent, that God is with us. In the midst of the all-consuming grief, in the midst of the pervasive despair, we do not walk alone. That would be enough too. It would be enough to know that we don’t grieve alone, that we don’t suffer alone, that we don’t face the darkness alone. Yet that’s not where God leaves us.
Christ didn’t come just to be God with us; Christ came to make things right. He came to bring down the powers and principalities of darkness. He came to raise up the poor and oppressed. He came to heal the sick. He came to raise the dead. He came not just to be present with us in the darkness, but he also came to destroy the darkness. He came not just to be present with us in our grief but also to conquer death, that we might have no reason to grieve again.
We look back during Advent, at Jesus’s birth, and what that meant that God is with us—but we also look ahead. We look ahead to Christ’s return, when all things will be made right; when the power of sin and death will be finally and totally conquered.
I despair, yet I have hope that the despair is not the end.
I despair, yet I have hope that the despair is not the end. The bells are ringing even now. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” Or, as the Revelator said, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new’” (Revelation 21:3–5a).
We have hope as we look ahead, so we pray, “Come quickly Lord, that even this shall be made right.”