When I was little, my favorite Christmas carol to play on the piano was O Come, Come Emmanuel. I loved the contrasting textures in the music, and when it came time to play those glorious chords of Rejoice, Rejoice, I tickled those ivories with all the passion my little fingers could muster. A few weeks ago, I was singing this same hymn in church and the words of the first verse struck me in a way they never had before.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears. Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Mourns in lonely exile…
Waiting to get out of Exile…
Emmanuel shall come to thee…
What does it mean to be in exile? To be in exile means to be away from one’s home, to be in foreign territory. Although political and physical exiles are still realities throughout the world today, I am going to venture to guess none of us have ever experienced that type of exile.
Instead, our experience with exile is less obvious and a little harder to explain. What does Exile look like in our lives today? It looks like feeling far from “home”- far from where you would like to be, or thought you would be, in this stage of life. It looks like struggling in relational exile where there is broken fellowship and no clear path on how to forgive and rebuild trust. It looks like wrestling in spiritual exile where you wonder why and how long and what is the meaning of all of this. You feel far from God. You question more and more and soon your questions give way to silence.
We feel our Exiles much more keenly during the Christmas season. It’s unfortunate, but true. Just ask anyone in Exile. Christmas seems to shine a big, blinding spotlight on our Exile. Maybe it is the marking of another year and the evaluation that inevitably comes alongside. Where am I compared to where I was a year ago? Did I do this? Did I accomplish that?
Or maybe it is because we all have in our minds the picture of what our lives and relationships are supposed to look like at Christmas. When your “Christmas Card” doesn’t look like everyone else’s it can feel like nails screeching down the chalkboard of your heart.
Or maybe this is your first, or fifteenth, Christmas without your loved one or that someone special or the answer to your heart’s prayer for a child. It’s hard to feel the wonder of Christmas when we keep tripping over the gaping void of an absent parent, spouse, or child.
We don’t choose our Exiles. We don’t choose the timing or the circumstances, and we really don’t get to choose when they end. We can choose, though, how we move through them. Your Exile can make you bitter or it can make you better. That’s the part you do get to determine. So if you are in Exile this Christmas, here are two things to ponder.
Keep living. Keep showing up in your life.
When we are in Exile our temptation is to either passively wait or find a shortcut. Passively waiting keeps you from growing, and searching for a shortcut keeps you running in circles. Keep living. Don’t delay some decisions or choices in your life because you are waiting for other things to happen. Waiting for your Exile to be over before you start living your “real life” is not always the smartest choice. Keep showing up in your life and taking care of one day at a time. The Israelites had to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, but they kept walking! You have to keep climbing the mountain no matter how many times you slide to the bottom. The slides to the bottom are not losses- they are opportunities to climb again. Only this time you know the paths that will and will not work.
Know what you KNOW
When you are in Exile you have to remember what you KNOW– not what you feel or what you’re presently telling yourself, but what you KNOW. What do you KNOW? What is your hope based on? I KNOW I cannot always see the big picture. I KNOW that I am not alone. I KNOW that everything can be redeemed. I don’t always feel these things, but I KNOW them. Some days what you KNOW feels like a great comfort that lifts you high above the clouds, and other days it is just the mustard seed of courage you need to keep moving forward an inch at a time. Do you know what you KNOW?
Are you in Exile this Christmas? Yes, whether it is your first or fifteenth year without your loved one, your realized dream, your restored relationship, or your answered prayer, this year may feel especially difficult. In years like this it may feel challenging to rest in the Good News of Christmas.
What is the Good News of Christmas? The Good News of Christmas is that we do not stay in Exile. It does end. There is freedom. There will be big, banging chords of Rejoicing.
So Fear not, my dear friends, I bring you Good News of Great Joy, which shall be to all people…. There are plans for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future… for this holy night the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
That’s the Good News. May you have a blessed Christmas.