O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Rejoicing in Advent
By Jason Harrison
Following Christ calls for rejoicing at all times. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Yet no Christian finds this easy, especially when faced with a year like 2020. Whether it be the death of a loved one or financial hardship, the experience of so much suffering can steal any confidence, satisfaction, and joy found in God and His promises. And then, there is Advent.
Advent is about an arrival. It draws us back to reality, to clear thinking and knowing. There are some truths that cannot be clouded over or forgotten. Every year we come again to the manger, to a birth, to a coming. We come to Emmanuel, God with us. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer once said, “God is in the manger.” This changes everything.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
There are certain hymns that vividly capture Advent and what it means to be an elect exile (1 Peter 1:1). O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is that hymn. It’s one of the oldest carols we sing, finding roots as early as the 9th Century. This anonymous prayer was translated into English in 1851, with the tune following a few years later. The music richly represents all the longing in the hymn.
It’s written from the perspective of those looking to Christ’s first coming (Advent), but it is true, of course, that it mirrors our experience as well. It expresses our longing too—Christ will one day come again.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
The first stanza is easily the most familiar with phrases like “ransom captive Israel” being louder than the rest. Four hundred years of silence was broken on a quiet night in Bethlehem. Captive exiles knew delivery would come, but not when it would come. We too, as exiles, face a similar reality. We are without a home, without a place, and without a belonging. We see injustice and suffering all around us and we long for the Messiah King to make all things right. That day when the Son of God will appear again.
Death’s Dark Shadow
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
If there is one thing that we’ve faced this year more than in recent years, it is the reality of death. We live in a world ravaged by death. Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, the pandemic hasn’t made death more likely. Rather, ”100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased” (1). The pandemic has forced us to remember death. It makes death real to us, showing us our mortality.
How comforting, then, it is to have a God who comes and enters this world in His first Advent. His mission is to experience our pain and to swallow up death in victory on the cross, thus taking away its sting. When the babe came in the manger, his was a new life. A new life that would one day die to give new life to many so that we might be freed from death. In that moment in Bethlehem, Mary held the one who would, only a few decades later, forever “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.”
Desire of Nations
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven's peace.
Another aspect of this year has been made clear—our hope is not found in politicians. Neither the one who promises to bring back the glory years, nor the one who promises to take our nation into the future can deliver real hope. Hoping in such leaders is pointless. This Advent hymn makes it clear that there is a leader who can unite us. There is one who can bring all peoples in one heart and mind. It’s the child who is born, the Son who is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.
As we look around this Christmas, we are tempted to lament. There is certainly nothing wrong with lamenting, but we have hope too. A hope that produces joy. Of the greatness of Christ’s government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign forever and ever. That’s the promise. We share the same promise with those who waited for the baby to be born all those centuries ago. They waited patiently, trusting God’s promises to be fulfilled—and so do we.
Our advantage is that we can rejoice today in the Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. The refrain of this great hymn is what I close with. Is it true that this year has been tough? Is it true that many are in pain? Is it true that we have much to lament? Yes, but even in this, we rejoice. The baby is in the manger. The tomb is empty. Christ will return.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. We rejoice, because we know He will.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
(1) C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (HarperOne, San Francisco, 1980), 61.