One of the things I love about the Christmas season is the music, especially the old traditional Christmas carols. Many of them date back to the 19th century, but some date to the 17th and 18th centuries or are set to music that is much older.
One of my favorites is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. According to C. Michael Hawn, its origins can be traced to an 8th or 9th century Latin antiphon. An antiphon is sung as a responsive choral dialogue, with two voices (or two choirs) singing alternating phrases. When I listen to the haunting melody of the carol, I can picture in my mind’s eye one of the Old Testament saints or prophets crying out to God, pleading with Him to send the promised Messiah to come and save them:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Then in answer, I hear joyous anticipation as heaven’s angel chorus sings in reply:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
With each verse, I can picture another of the saints of old, laying before God the heartache and misery of the broken people around them, crying out for Him to come and bring the comfort and hope of His presence:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
O come, Thou Day-Spring
Come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery
Each mournful verse brings the jubilant response of heaven, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Hold on! Have faith! God has heard your cries! The Son of God is coming to save you!
At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Jesus as a babe, the Son of God taking on human flesh. He came and lived among us. He knows firsthand the sorrow and misery of grief and loss. He knows the heartache of living in a broken world full of hurting, hurtful, sinful people.
So, when I hear the words of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I also picture the broken, grieving people of today, pouring out their hearts to God, yearning for His help and the comfort of His presence. And in my mind, I hear the choirs of heaven reply: Rejoice! He has come! He is here! He hears your cries!
Jesus came as a baby and died as our Savior. But that is not the end of the story. Jesus rose from the dead to bring us eternal life. Jesus ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us. And He is coming again to put an end to sin and misery.
This Christmas season, bring your sorrow and grief and lay it at the feet of the babe in the manger. Allow the rejoicing of heaven to wash over you: Emmanuel, the God who is with us, is near to you! Emmanuel, the God who is with us, will come again!
Hawn, C. Michael. History of Hymns: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church. 20 May 2013. Accessed 18 December 2019. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-come-o-come-emmanuel
Modern lyrics: https://castingcrowns.com/music/o-come-o-come-emmanuel/
Example traditional lyrics: https://hymnary.org/text/o_come_o_come_emmanuel_and_ransom