When we were teenagers, my sister, Linda, was a goth. If you remember this particular cultural moment from the mid-2000s, it was all baggy black pants with chains on them, black eyeliner, and graphic tees for bands that were mainly screaming.
I was not. Linda and I were so different as children and teenagers that many people at our school didn’t even know we were related. I did ballet, she did karate; I liked pink, she preferred black; I was bubbly, she was angry; I was lighthearted, she was serious. I had friends, and she struggled to find her place. I was well-liked by teachers, and she got in trouble. Linda was brutally honest, and I was fake. Linda pointed out when things were messed up, and I let stuff slide to be liked. She could sit with grief, anger, and melancholy, and I was all smiles, even when it wasn’t real. It was easy for me to succeed in school, socially, and in relationships, and Linda had to try harder.
Because you see, our culture doesn’t really like people like Linda. We don’t like sadness or anger or raw honesty. If you want to succeed you have to be charming and smiley and happy all the time.
Think about it — we celebrate it when people bounce back quickly, we are happy when they power through. We admire people for “being strong” when they can play a good hostess at a loved one’s funeral; we tell people that to “get back out there” when they suffer heartbreak. We just don’t like sitting in moments that remind us that there is darkness in our world.
We think grief isn’t ok. We think sadness isn’t ok. We think recognizing that the world isn’t as it should be isn’t ok. We think people like Linda, who naturally see the brokenness in the world, who recognize the cracks in our smiley life, aren’t ok.
We live in a world of major key. Linda is a minor key.
When we were teenagers, Linda sang in our youth Christmas concert (I don’t remember if she actually wore the pants with the chains on them, but feel free to imagine her that way). It was a solo. She was shy, and I remember her being nervous and not looking at the crowd. She sang O Come O Come Emmanuel. She sang it A Cappella to a silent room.
O Come O Come Emmanuel is the carol most noticeably in a minor key — its verses are haunting and slow and full of lament. It was like I had never really heard it before. Its hung with me ever since, I began to realize the night that Linda sang it that the song was beautiful even though it was sad.
The verses of the song cry out over and over again to God: “O Come.” They ask God to come into spaces where God isn’t. The verses are poems about the places of God’s absence. They point out the sad, the melancholy, and the place of grief.
Then there are the choruses — “Rejoice, Rejoice” that break in and break up the sadness. The choruses pop through with light in the middle of the sadness and remind us that, to those spaces of God’s absence, God will come.
And so, hymn the floats back and forth, weaves between the joy and the grief, between what is now and what one day will be, between what is happening, and what is hoped for. In a way I didn’t understand as a teenager, I needed Linda’s presence in my life growing up to continue to push me to see the world’s hurt. Like any set of siblings that grow up with each other, we learned from each other, and we’re probably more alike now than we ever were. We needed each other to learn the other half of the song. I hope I taught her to rejoice, just as I know she taught me to create space for lament.
This carol, O Come O Come Emmanuel, is still my favorite. It is truly, truly a song of Advent, the season of waiting. Because waiting without recognizing what it is you wait for, what you don’t currently have, that you hope will be, isn’t waiting at all. Waiting, Advent, requires that we recognize the spaces where God isn’t and where we wish God to be.
Only after we recognize those spaces, sing the “O Come” of the verses, does that “Rejoice” really mean something. So, this Advent, I’m grateful for my sister, and her unknowing witness, for the beauty of waiting, and most of all, for the knowledge that we may rejoice, because Emmanuel has and will come to us.
Director of Youth Ministries