In Psalm 137 the Psalmist laments over the destruction of Jerusalem. He also laments because the people of Israel are now, tragically, exiled to Babylon. Their captors are asking them to sing one of “those songs” of Zion. But they couldn't. It’s just not the same. All meaning has been removed from their song and nothing resonates with them. All they can do is hang up their harps on the willow tree branches, lament, and weep. They aren’t in their familiar surroundings, so why bother? They ask, “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Although we may not like to admit it, how we sing God’s praises, where we sing the Lord’s song, the customs and rituals that we enact each year are a significant part of how we express our relationship and love for God. We should be able to praise and pray to God wherever our location, and we do, but it’s just not as simple as that. Especially when those “holy” days, holidays roll around. Those days are filled with tradition and tradition gives us a sense of belonging, stability and connection. And, who are we without relationship?
As Christians enter Advent, the weeks before Christmas, the time of waiting, watching, and expectation of Christ’s birth, I am searching. How do I mark this time of the year, which, for me is as equally important, maybe even more so, as Christmas? It’s during this marked frame of time that I spiritually prepare to receive the incarnation of God’s love. Without this spiritual work, without living intentionally, Christmas day is nothing but a big present fest.
It is difficult in Israel for me to sing because right now it is a foreign land. My surroundings are not familiar to me and the predominant season is not my religious season. Hanukkah is beautiful but it’s not Advent. Candles will be lit commemorating a miracle, but it’s not my miracle. I will have to search to find some familiarity in celebration and thanksgiving. But it’s not impossible. This is the season of miracles you know!
My advent wreath this year is not a wreath but a plate of olives leaves from the trees on my street. I will light a new candle each week in anticipation of Christ’s birth. My tree will not be a tree that I have cut down. Israel plants trees for heaven's sake! Rather it will be some small branches that I’ve picked up on the street and will prop up in a corner of my apartment. The ornaments will not be my beloved family ornaments but found items: some pottery shards, a pine cone or two, some small bits of Jerusalem stone, and a couple of angels that I’ll watercolor.
In darkness it is able to find a glimpse of light and hope. When we can’t sing in our own land and in our own way, and with the people we love, we are provided a different tune. That is the gift of God’s love.