Christmas Eve: The Question of Generations
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
“Those who know the most must mourn the deepest.” —Lord Byron
A few days ago, I sat behind a friend during a beautifully-imagined Advent chapel service, where for an hour we prayed prayers and sang songs that were wonderfully chosen for their existential and theological richness, each one in its own way a window into the heart of hope. But to be honest, there were times when I could barely breathe, knowing that my friend was having to make sense of his own soul.
Almost a year ago, he suffered a heart-breaking loss, a very grievous wound, and months later it is only harder. The memories haven’t softened, and the ache only deepens—and we know why sons of Adam and daughters of Eve have been singing the songs of Zion for ages, crying out in our own times and places the words of Psalm 13 and 137: “How long, how long must we sing this song?”
Over the many days since the tragedy, he and I have talked, and talked, and talked again. Nothing we have said to each other has been cheap.
Tears have flowed, and our hearts have together been broken, wondering why and how such griefs are possible in this world.
Taken by itself, his story is a great sorrow, simply, soberly said; but placing it alongside the stories of so many more, in an Information Age where we “know” so much about everyone everywhere, there is much to mourn all over the face of the earth, overwhelmingly so.
All through our meditation on Advent, I thought of the strange wisdom of the English poet Lord Byron, wisdom so against what seems must be true. How can it possibly be that, “Those who know the most must mourn the deepest”?
The words are centuries old, poetically brooding over the reality of the First Temptation, the primordial promise that knowing more would mean more happiness, the truest happiness.
Civilizations and centuries later, we still want to believe this promise. The secular West and the pantheist East both offer “Enlightenment” as the answer to our deepest longings, and it is hard for human beings of whatever age to believe otherwise. Everything in us cries out that it must be true that if we only knew more—and yet. And yet, the longer I live, the more sure I am that Byron was right—profoundly so—feeling in my own bones the weight of what is wounding and wounded in life and the world.
In that Advent chapel, sitting behind my grieving friend, we sang,
How long? Will You turn Your face away?
How long? Do You hear us when we pray?
On and on, still we walk this pilgrim way — How long?
How long 'til Your children find their rest?
How long 'til You draw them to Your breast?
We go on holding to Your promises — How long?
'Til You wipe away the tears from ev'ry eye
'Til we see our home descending from the sky
Do we wait in vain?
Jesus, give us hope again!
How long 'til Your word will still the storm?
How long 'til You bare Your mighty arm?
How we groan 'til You snatch us from the thorns — How long?
So we sang, echoing the question of generations—from the exiles along the rivers of Babylon to the plaintive cry of U2—and placing our own hearts onto the hope of Advent, the faithfulness of God.
I wondered and wondered what my friend was making of the music. The truest truths are meant to be grace, but some days they are difficult to take in.
Some days all we can do is sing, “How long, how long, how long?”
Some days this is where hope begins.
—Steven Garber is a Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, and author of The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work. He served on CCO staff from 1985-1989.