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Advent began for me on that first Sunday about 9:20 CST. We sang much-loved “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in our Covid-weary church and something in me clicked.

I have loved that hymn forever, perhaps, early on, because the minor key and lingering over the syllables in “Emmanuel” touched the latent melancholic in my little boy brain. As my understanding of faith and language became more sophisticated, the hymn resonated with something more, sometimes for the language and tradition but always for the same potent namelessness.

The evolutionary scientist in me puzzles over why minor key music prompts minor key emotions like sadness or longing or regret. Sound, after all, is nothing more than vibrations in the air that land on our eardrums. Some combinations of individual tones make us happy, some make us sad. There’s even a mathematical precision to this. One could write a mathematical model for separating combinations for sad-producing vibrations from all those for happy-producing vibrations and indeed the mathematical precision of wave dynamics and the power of music is metaphysically linked. Why should that be? What’s the underlying evolutionary benefit or selection pressure behind it? I literally can’t imagine and my attempts to search for plausible just-so stories in sciences’ far horizons are lost. But I sing every Advent.

O come, O dayspring, come and cheer

Dayspring in verse 6 of the Lutheran hymnal was the trigger this year. It’s why, weeks later, I am writing this on a Saturday morning when I should be grading or finishing the review that’s overdue. Dayspring is dawn. I am my family’s early-riser and dawn is the daily period in my world when the human footprint seems lightest. In all seasons, the new hopeful day is the glow on the horizon, the birds sing, the wind wakes itself, the deer are unhurried. I drink a first rich coffee and the mind-space between here and what I need to finish today is enough to indulge in some otherwise irresponsible wandering.

O Sun of justice, now draw near

This is the line where I pivoted into Advent. There’s a unique play on the word “Sun” here. The spelling is the life-giving star at the center of our solar system. The context and capitalization points to Jesus in another of the names we use to try and understand: Wonderful counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. . . “Sun of justice.” I can hear. . . no feel (!) that wonderful music in my soul (and you probably can too). Sun of Justice. In a phrase, it captures where my faith has meandered in the past year. Creator and creation in a single life-giving word. Life-giving as a fiery permanence in the void, holding us, pulling us, uniting us, compelling us. . . convicting us.

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

The hymnal footnote says that verse 6 is a paraphrase of one of the “O Antiphons” and off I go on another internet safari. The O Antiphons are a liturgy of longing for the Messiah for the seven days before Christmas. They date to the 5th century, a light emerging from Europe’s Dark Ages. This one, verse 6, associates with December 21, the winter solstice.

Of course it does.

The Sun of Justice. For us in the northern hemisphere, the Sun begins its return. Humanity collectively exhales and hope evolves. I sing in the furnace-warmth of my church, I sing through my pandemic mask, I sing to add heft to the Youtube transmission for our homebound. I sing with my ancestors, and I hear them in the voices stepping across the minor key. They’re in the immigrant churches in Waupun and Orange City, in a cold stone church on the edge of the empire, around a fire in a time before Christianity. The Sun of justice returned for them too.

And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Name them: a climate crisis, a global pandemic, the sixth great extinction, racism, sexism, poverty, consumerism, nationalism — and in my own country, a poisoned politics where greed, lies, and lust for power are celebrated as virtue.

I can’t remember a year where I’ve had more conversations about hope. In the face of death’s dark shadows, students and colleagues, people of faith and otherwise, hope or the stubborn decision for hope persists. Hope in the darkness is as old as humanity, as improbable as it seems at times. Like our oversized brains and opposable thumbs, hope is our key for survival – should we choose to let it motivate us. We awake at dawn as the Sun of justice returns. Would that we all become woke and sing (even in a minor key).

This ancient favorite hymn speaks to the things I worry about and suggests a reality between what we can know from empirical science and what we consign to metaphor. It’s the undiscovered country for many of us despite evidence that our ancestors may have navigated it with familiarity. I suspect something essential about hope is there waiting to be rediscovered.

On the third Sunday of Advent, we installed Pastor Anne as our pastor of Children, Youth, and Family. And something in the formal charge read to Pastor Anne caught my attention. Bishop Joy charged Pastor Anne to be a “Steward of God’s mysteries.”

We wait in the borderlands between darkness and light. Creation in muddy reality and slippery transcendence is turning towards the light with the Sun of justice on the horizon. On December 21, Advent, the veil is very thin. Sing with creation and retell the story to your kin. We all are stewards of God’s mysteries.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

7 Comments

  • June Huissen says:

    Such a gift this morning. Thank you!

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    Impossible to read this without singing along with you and all the saints through the centuries!
    Thank you.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    “We wait in the borderlands between darkness and light. Creation in muddy reality and slippery transcendence is turning towards the light with the Sun of justice on the horizon. On December 21, Advent, the veil is very thin. Sing with creation and retell the story to your kin. We all are stewards of God’s mysteries.”

    That is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. Thank you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Really nice, Tim, thank you. A good read and a good meditation.

  • Emily Brink says:

    I loved this, Tim. Thank you! Singing in a minor key is so often rich with depth, as we hope and long for resolution that comes with a major ending….

  • Helen Phillips says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This was wonderful to read on this cold winter morning. I especially love your closing paragraph.

    “We wait in the borderlands between darkness and light. Creation in muddy reality and slippery transcendence is turning towards the light with the Sun of justice on the horizon. On December 21, Advent, the veil is very thin. Sing with creation and retell the story to your kin. We all are stewards of God’s mysteries.”

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