Our prayer began with the wafting of a flute playing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Listening to the plaintive, brooding notes, I could feel the sorrowful longing of the Israelites in Egypt, the homesick banished to Babylon, and the poor oppressed under the Roman boot.
It was all “who mourn in lonely exile here.”
But the hymn was more than the cries of the suffering. The refrain assured that the listener can rejoice, for Emmanuel shall surely come.
With its tonal range, the flute trilled a light, silvery sound that not only echoed but urged the jubilant words.
The flute is the oldest musical instrument. First fashioned from bird legs, its sounds filled Ice Age caves 40,000 years ago.
We don’t know what tunes our forebears played, but their art must have reflected hardships and insecurity.
There is little doubt, though, that their flutes also invited the skin-clad clan to dance around the fire.
The flute is now a diverse family from piccolo to tin whistle, but its accompaniment of the scope of human emotions has not changed. Any flute is capable of the saddest dirges, but it can turn on its heel to start a reel or drop to its knees with the Ode to Joy.
That’s why the flute and the hymn are the perfect match. The antiphonal message of the song about the ever-present struggles of life is countered with the “Yes, but ...” promise of God’s abiding presence.
The mournful, and then the airy notes of the flute testify to both of these truths.
In our theological narrative, the longing and the joy meet in Christmas. We buy that, but find it more difficult to see how Christmas actually changes anything, especially me.
For Karl Barth, to celebrate Christmas, one must, like Simeon at the Presentation, “see salvation.” It is not just enough to believe in Christmas, prepare for it or stumble toward it in an especially dark Advent.
Christmas, real Christmas, is the upbeat note — seeing that Emmanuel is really “God with us,” here and now, in every crack and crevasse.
It is, as Barth says, seeing what until now we have only sought. It means taking and using what we have longed for.
So what is your deepest longing, your desperate need? For what do you mourn in exile?
Name it with courage and hope. Then in awe and humility, come close to the manger.
What do you see? Can you hear the music change?