It is midnight, as we stand outside of our home scanning the edges of the world. Without the moon, the sky reveals little but the starry firmament stretching from horizon to horizon, as it shines dimly in the intergalactic distance. The windless night turns our once-sightless breath into ghostly flames. Our hands are nearly attached to the cold metal of the lamps that wait patently at the end of our dangling, almost impotent arms. We are stocked with oil and our wicks are trimmed. The candle is burning. And we wait, watching the manger and the eastern sky. We wait, watching for our Lord.
Waiting takes time. During those long hours of the night, we are so preoccupied with peripatetic thoughts that we often forget we are standing in the freezing, moonless night. How will we react when we see Him? What will we say to Him? What would we do? Will we dance for Him? We can only imagine, we might think. We think on these things at length until we are thrust back into awareness of the chill that runs through our bodies. It’s still dark, it is still cold and there is still no sign of Him.
Waiting is tiring. It is tiring work to avoid sleep and to always keep an eye scanning the horizon for your Beloved. It is tiring when those around you suddenly shout, “There He is! He is coming!”, only for that distant image turn out as a tumbling tumbleweed. Everyone sighs and the spotter is dejected. Emotions rise and fall each time while you wait, each time making you more tired. Wracked with lack of sleep, our bodies lean toward our beds, even as we are standing. Our throats hurt from the cold.
Yet, Hope remains. Hope abides, as you scan a moonless night’s horizon, waiting for the eastern sky to split in two, or to hear the cry of that newborn in the lap of His Mother. Hope defies.
“Even so, Lord, come!” I have always read that as an ecstatic utterance of praise. As an Episcopalian who doesn’t think much about the Second Coming, I can sympathize with “Even so, Lord, come!” Come, O Lord, into this world of hurting, into this land of waiting, into this land of cold darkness. Light our path. Be a lamp unto our feet. Blow it up and start over again, if you have to; we’ve had our fill thankyouverymuch! “Even so, Lord, come!” But, the longer I’ve been alive, the more and more I don’t think it is a shout of praise, but a murmur of resignation. How will we react? What will we say? What can we say, but mumble towards that figure on the horizon, “Even so, Lord, come!” And come quickly, at that.
There in the Temple, the Prophet Simeon knew this kind of waiting. He knew it in his bones, these long nights of desire without release. He knew the long nights of the vain repetitions of prayer that have long lost their meaning, for his mind shouted at him while he chanted his way through the Psalter for the umpteenth time, “What the hell are you doing?” He knew this kind of waiting, because he missed out on a lot of living, because he was living to watch (and, watching, perhaps, to live). Yet, when that Holy Child was placed in his arms, he did not dance (for he was too old) or break forth in an utterance of tongues (for he was too tired), but he simply smiled and whispered, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. I’ve seen what I’ve been waiting for. I can die now. Thank you.”
I have enough,
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous,
into my eager arms;
I have enough!
I have beheld Him,
my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart;
now I wish, even today with joy
to depart from here. (1)
Not only does Bach give Simeon these words, but he gives him the most joyously melancholic and bittersweet tune. Bach makes the Prophet Simeon sigh, “I have enough. I’ve seen Him who my soul has longed for. I have seen what has been promised to me.” Why do the Prophet’s words sound so bitter? Why does his contentment so depressing? Perhaps, his life has lost all purpose (for his purpose was to wait) and he recognized at that moment that the Child in his arms was the climax of his life. No matter how joyous, all other joys would grey in comparison. He had nothing to wait for but death, now. His canticle of praise is no shout, but a sigh.
Perhaps when we stand on the banks of the Jordan we might, too, look back on our lives and forward to our deaths. For waiting in the cold midnight makes you long for nothing more than sleep and a warm bed. When will we hear the prattle of that Holy Child? Or hear the trumpets of heaven announce the splitting of the Eastern sky? How long must we hold these stupid lamps, keeping our wicks trimmed and lamps filled with oil?
Yet, while we wait, we might also be frightened of what is ahead: the unknowable, the unsearchable and the unattainable; what we only half-know and half-believe on our best days (which are few in number). For we have no choice but to fall into the hands of the God who is wildly mysterious, covering Himself with hailstones and riding upon the lightning. We fall into the hands of the God who is always beyond our best thoughts, as we are sucked into that frightening “abyss of love” (as St. Catherine put it). We have no choice but to trust in the God whom we’ve ever only imperfectly trusted and with whom our relationship has always been a bit contentious.
Yes, we do well to be frightened by the mystery of God who is all love, a love so exceeding all we’ve ever known.
But, when the long-awaited salvation dawns upon our souls and that Holy child is thrust into our hands, perhaps we won’t shout, dance or sing anything. Perhaps we will raise our lamps shakily and let out a long, lung-cleansing sigh and say, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word”, as the old world passes away, the new Jerusalem comes down from God and the glass darkly is smashed in the blinding light of the lamb. And there, we shall know even as we are known, immersed in a love so comforting that we will rest in the Divine for the first thousand years as if it were but a night. Waking, not to ourselves, but to Him who has loved us from the beginning and will continue to love us, world without end.
Until then, we scan the horizon, braving the cold between thoughts wrought with fright and placated with comfort, while we eek out a whisper between frozen lips, “Even so, Lord, come!”
Even so, Lord, come.
1: Bach’s Cantata “Ich Habe Genug” (BWV 82) was written for the feast of the Purification of Mary. The translation comes from Emmanuel Music, a group which performs a Bach Cantata as they were originally intended: for most every Sunday of the Church year. This performance is of the renowned Baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and is my favorite. An honorable mention is the late Lorriane Hunt Lieberson’s recording, which I just discovered today and is also quite lovely.