Below is the third and final verse of a hymn entitled “‘Sleepers Awake!’ A Voice Astounds Us.”
Lamb of God, the heavens adore you;
let saints and angels sing before you,
as harps and cymbals swell the sound.
Twelve great pearls, the city’s portals:
through them we stream to join the immortals
as we with joy your throne surround.
No eye has known the sight,
no ear heard such delight: Alleluia!
Therefore we sing to greet our King;
for ever let our praises ring.
“Sleepers Awake!” is #17 in the blue Presbyterian Hymnal. In the office copy of the hymnal, we track how often particular hymns are used in worship. There is no date next to #17. So, at least at JPC, it may be true that “no eye has known the sight, no ear heard such delight” as one might discover in that hymn.
There aren’t many Advent songs in our hymnal, and we use only a precious few of those available. And if we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” one Sunday, then make a bee-line for “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Joy to the World!”, we miss crucial elements of the story.
One of the struggles during Advent is actually observing Advent. Many American Christians jump into Christmas by the time darkness falls on Thanksgiving Day and they’re loading leftover turkey onto white bread with mustard and mayo. That’s why we see all those Frazier firs wrapped in huge hairnets and strapped to the tops of cars the next day. Christmas without Advent, though, is kind of like playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a kazoo. You might recognize the melodic Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee theme, but it’s not a symphony of four movements in all its complexity, subtlety, and majesty. Performing and listening to such a masterpiece requires some understanding and practice, that is to say, preparation.
To experience the true wonder of Christmas—not the doe-eyed Santa brought me stuff wonder, but the transforming, then we will see face-to-face wonder—we prepare ourselves, because it’s not Christmas morning we’re preparing for. We’re preparing for a life of encounter with the God who enters human existence in all its suffering, sadness, and futility as well as its holiness, joy, and hope. Advent immerses us in the wider and deeper story so that we acknowledge Christmas as more than “Jesus’ birthday.” Advent reminds us that Jesus is more than a memorable melody. He’s the theme, the thread that holds together God’s great opus of Creation. And Christmas, the celebration of the ongoing Incarnation, is a defining movement in the masterpiece.
“No eye has known the sight, no ear heard such delight,” declares the hymn. I know the language, but not the tune. What might that new thing reveal, though? How might it help us to prepare to come face-to-face with God whose presence is both incarnate and mysterious, immediate and timeless?
How might we prepare ourselves to be moved beyond the momentary happiness of Merry Christmas! to the eternal surprise of the all-in love of God embodied in the joys and sufferings of a human being named Jesus of Nazareth?