The guitar and piano notes weaved together with the voices of our church family as we lifted the generations-old lines to heaven.
“O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear . . . ”
I heard my youngest daughter’s voice rising next to me — full of volume and unbridled joy. She loves to worship through singing just as much as her mama does. Christmas music is my favorite, especially the carols that often proclaim a deep theology.
Although the text for “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” springs from a seven-verse poem that dates back to the eighth century, it feels like these words could describe our present era. In fact, these words meet us right here after two years of navigating a global pandemic, racial tension still dividing our country, and constant news of natural disasters riddling our earth.
“O come, O King of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind. Bid all our sad divisions cease and be yourself our King of Peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”
Throughout December, I found myself lingering over the word rejoice like a hummingbird hovering over a flower before diving in for the nectar. There is energy and light in that word that draws me in and encircles me with a sense of warmth.
What does it mean to rejoice? And why do we seem to reserve rejoicing for Christmastime?
In January, I chose rejoice as my word of the year for 2022 and began a treasure hunt through the Bible, paying attention to this word. (It’s everywhere, by the way, and not just in the passages we traditionally read in December.)
After just a little digging, I quickly discovered rejoice is often connected with words like joy, gladden, exult, triumph, or be merry. The prefix “re” means again, going back to how something was before, or repetition. When we re-joice, we are re-joy-cing or returning to joy. I decided to follow this word through my year to see what God might teach me.
So far, I’ve noticed that rejoicing often comes after a season of grief. In the Psalms, David laments, cries out to God, processes his pain with God, and then often returns to praise. David tastes sorrow and sickness, darkness and a deep sense of longing, but then often returns to joy and leads listeners to gratitude.
One of my favorite examples of this is in Psalm 30 when David tells the story of how God has pulled him from a season of grief into a spacious place of joy. David pens these poetic lines: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 ESV).
When Shawn and I got married six years ago, we chose these words from Psalm 30:11-12 for our wedding:
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Psalm 30:11-12 (ESV)
These verses held special meaning after my late husband and Shawn’s dear friend died of cancer. God was ushering our family from a time of mourning into rejoicing. He was calling us back to joy and worship.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Many use the time from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday as a time to reflect, repent, and return to God in prayer. In some traditions, people choose to fast on the forty weekdays that span the season, entering into the forty-day fast Jesus undertook in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2). They might choose to take a break from chocolate, meat, social media, or some other indulgence.
We often focus on the fasting. The heart behind this practice is to align ourselves with Jesus’ suffering as we approach Holy Week and Easter. We deprive ourselves to delve deeper into connection with God, but sometimes we get distracted by the fasting itself. At least I know I do.
What if Lent was less about fasting and more about feasting on the presence of God?
People who enter the practice of fasting during Lent often break their fast on Sundays, which are considered feast days of celebration throughout the year. Like the ebb and flow of ocean waves, there is a rhythm of fasting followed by feasting.
This year I’m taking a different approach to Lent. I’m accepting God’s invitation to focus on rejoicing. I invite you to fast from distractions and join me at the table to feast with our Savior, the Bread of Life. Let’s lift our eyes from the loneliness and lack of these past few years and look to the horizon, the resurrection to come.
Twelve years ago, was the first time I chose a word of the year to follow. As I flipped back through the pages of my journals and reflections on my blog, I discovered the first word I chose was joy. Is it any wonder that God is calling me to return to joy this year — to rejoice in all seasons – to re-joy-ce in Him?
Perhaps it’s time to turn the chorus of that familiar Christmas carol into a celebration song anticipating Easter: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”