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Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel

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O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This hauntingly beautiful 12th century hymn hits me where I live this Advent season.  The sojourn in this remote mountain village of Northern California has felt like lonely exile more often than not.  I’ve realized too late that there is a formidable disease at work to destroy the business I came to help build up.  It’s a disease that practically all of us have experienced in our lives, one way or another.   Many of us first find ourselves trying to cope with its damage to our households while we’re yet children, doing our best to navigate life while mom or dad is drunk out of their minds.  We learn early on that “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” isn’t so much fantasy as the reality of what happens when Mommy or the Old Man gets home from the store with a case of beer or a jug of wine.  The disease takes hold of them and also grabs everyone else in the household in one way or another.  Some turn into a slobberingly happy caricature of a person, others become more arrogant, bitter and angry.  Either way they are caught up in their own self-destruction and can’t help but pull those around them into the spiraling descent of alcoholic decay.  Children find themselves trapped and helpless, and do what they must to survive the surrealities of home life and the challenging realities of life on the outside.

This new experience of the disease, made manifest in someone I trusted, someone whose salesmanship was key in my decision to move to the remote mountain village, this experience has conjured up those old childhood memories.  The way I dealt with the disease back then was to retreat to a place I’d made for myself in my own mind.  Fantasy and imagination were my best friends back when I was growing up.  I also found peace and inspiration in the comedians I saw on television, especially Johnny Carson.  I’d fake being asleep then get up, flip on the little B&W TV I had in my room, and watch the Tonight Show, with the coolest guy in show business interviewing and showcasing the amazing talent of the time.  Then I discovered Don Rickles, whose earliest insult-laden routines were funny in a shocking sort of way.  But Rickles’ manic material also touched an anger I’d been harboring, anger born of being held captive in my own home, by a disease I had no way of overcoming, a disease that left its mark on me in ways that it has taken years to discern.

Those of us who have experienced this captivity as children know that the divorce of parents can be a release and a blessing, if it means that Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde no longer lives under the same roof as you do.  Then you no longer have to tiptoe around your own home with dread and trepidation, worried that you might set off some sort of episode that you know has no business playing out in your home at all.

Now, many years and many miles removed from that experience, I find myself in a new sort of captivity, with chains that are all too familiar.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This is a good prayer right now.  I look back and see that God did deliver me out of the first captivity.  God also brought repentance and its healing effects into the life of the parent that had been consumed by the disease.  The liberation from tyranny and rescue from despair’s dark pit does come, it has come, and it shall come again.

The disease is as powerful as it ever was.  The man it is ruining can barely tell that the disease steals a little piece of him every time he gives in and drinks something he thinks will make him better.  The man is becoming a cruel distortion of the boy his family once knew as kind, thoughtful, smart and caring.  The boy manipulates and denies; he chucks responsibility aside even as he whines about responsibility’s crushing effects on his life.

And he’s very, very good at getting those around him to divert energy and resources his way, convincing them that he’s in control of the disease, despite growing evidence to the contrary.

I, for my part, have had a hit-and-miss way of dealing with him, with myself, and with this deteriorating situation.  I’ve found myself slipping back into the old role of enabler and defender; I’ve increasingly withdrawn into a place where I can’t be disturbed, whether it’s watching TV or surfing the internet, or taking a drive by myself.  It hasn’t been good for the health of the marriage, but I’m married to an amazing and patient woman who manages to pull me out of these places and back into her company, where life is good.

At the bar-lodging-restaurant business, life is anything but good.  It was closed one recent weekend when it should have been open for business.  The official reason was that a refrigerator went out in the restaurant and the business couldn’t operate without it.  Never mind that there were other refrigerators available on the premises.  The real reason was that the boy had been playing in the bar again, was feeling tired and overwhelmed by his responsibilities, and thought it best if he got himself a little rest away from the action.  So he stayed in the upstairs apartment, kept the place closed and kept on drinking those liquids that strengthen the disease.  Meanwhile, people including myself were without work that weekend, and without the needed pay that comes from that work.  Business hasn’t been all that great, and the thought of turning away any prospective customers was inconceivable.  The village economy is mostly a subsistence economy, and most folks, myself included, need every dime we can make.  The small group of folks who wanted to come spend a few dimes and a few dollars were met by a dark and locked building.   I tried every persuasive technique I knew to keep the place open–without effect.  The boy’s business is his business (for the time being, anyway) and he will do what he wants to do.   And what he wants to do, he says, is to have fun at this place where he can have a few drinks with his friends and then join in on some home made music making.  When I compare this to the vision he gave me when I was considering a move out here, I find a distorted and false picture has taken over, much like the field of vision that takes over when one takes a drink and finds oneself looking through the bottom of a glass.

 O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

I’m needing the cheer of Day-Spring in this cold, gray mountain village.  And there are hints that it’s coming. Over the years I’ve developed an appreciation and love for the Advent season.  I find the themes of preparation and waiting have less to do with our observance of Christmas and more to do with the ongoing encounters and experiences with the God who rescues and brings new life in the midst of hopelessness and despair.  In some respects, Advent is suited well to the Jewish observance of Hanukkah.  Prepare, wait, and believe that God is at hand.  And even though the circumstances would speak to a hopeless situation, God indeed brings hope and changes those circumstances through the sheer power of redemptive love.   This is the true message of Christmas, that God knows our infirmities and diseases very well, and God is not willing to let these awful things claim us and our lives.   In fact, God dwells among us and within us, and God’s energy is light and life.  Good news for me and for the one who would hold the keys to this latest captivity.

I hold on to the words of another song as well, one written within my lifetime, one that helped me navigate life in that first captivity.

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey.

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away.

This is my music this Advent season.  Emmanuel has come and is coming again.  As we prepare for this guest, we might even find the guest is already with us, waiting with us, preparing with us for the next stage of the journey, one that leads us through disease and despair,  from darkness toward an inextinguishable light.



One response »

  1. My epiphany this Christmas season is that, after the hardships and faith of following that star for, some say, two years. The pain of riding a camel and being far from home and always going forward. When the wise men found themselves in front of that dirty manger, they did not lose faith, did not cry out that they had been fools to believe and follow a star across a desert. They gathered their gifts, proceeded inside and presented their gifts.
    What they found was far different than what they envisioned. And yet, they understood they were right were they needed to be.

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