The season of Advent is almost upon us, which always brings one of my favorite hymns to mind, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This hymn is adapted from a chant, and keeps a mournful tone as the congregation places itself into the shoes of ancient Israel, waiting for the redemption of Israel to come. The chorus is a cry back from the heavenly host, “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee O Israel!” It’s a song which drives me to tears of joy.
This hymn came to me again on Monday morning as I was preparing to participate in a funeral. I wasn’t presiding over it, but I still pondered how a season of mourning the loss of a loved one can be bound to this season of expectant hope and waiting. So much of the hymn, the cries of God’s people looking for their suffering to be ended, resonates with the grief associated with losing a loved one. And yet that chorus, with its calls to rejoice, gave me pause. I’ve seen pastors attempt to skip over the gift of grief in sermons, an act so callous it’s always put me off. Skipping over grief at a funeral imposes a sense upon mourners that their grief is somehow wrong because Jesus has overcome the powers of death. It’s a terrible burden to shove upon an already burdened people.
But the more I reflected on the hymn, and the refrain, I realized this is not what “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is doing. The hymn encourages worshippers to to feel their longing, grief, and pain — not ignore it or shove it down into hiding. And the refrain is not a claim that our grief is not real. Rather, it’s a call to rejoice that God so loved those created in the divine image that Jesus came to join us in our suffering because it is real. We rejoice because we know our pain is his pain, our grief is his grief, our burdens are his burdens. And so, in a time of mourning we can be comforted in knowing Jesus grieves with us, just as he did before the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. And this is joy, knowing that in our grief and sorrow we will not be left alone.
On the occasion of a funeral this refrain is even more poignant, as Christian theology teaches us the deceased has joined that great heavenly multitude which cries back down to us in despair, “Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come.” And Emmanuel will walk with us to the very end, until all things are made new.