Friday, December 16, 2016

O Come O Come Immanuel

This Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Advent, something I suspect has escaped the notice of many Christians in America.

What we popularly consider the Christmas season technically is the Advent season. Advent is a part of the traditional Christian calendar, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, and ending on Christmas itself. The four Sundays of Advent are marked by lighting candles on a wreath, each with a different theme. The fifth candle, the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas. In a liturgical sense the Christmas season does not begin until Christmas itself, and lasts for 12 days before ending on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.

Fortunately, this doesn't make a difference to any but the stodgiest and most annoying people. Luckily for the rest of us, they have their own churches where they can fret over these things and wait until Christmas before they start singing Christmas carols, without ruining the fun of the season for the rest of us. (You know who you are.)

Advent technically has its own set of carols, such as “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” written by Charles Wesley; but for whatever reason these have not received the elevated status of Christmas carols. With some exceptions.

Chief among these exceptions is “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

Like all other great songs, whether they are hymns, Christmas carols or something else, “O Come O Come Immanuel” is best learned not from a lyrics sheet but by immersion. You grow up hearing it sung as the last leaves fall from the trees and as the sky first grows leaden with winter. You first sing it yourself before you can read, and learn to lose yourself in its somber notes at an age when it still thrills you to watch your breath chill in the air around you.

Some Christmas carols contain lessons on the meaning of Christmas, or they retell a familiar story around the Nativity. Some try to do both. None of that applies in this case. There is no progression of ideas in this carol, no breakthrough or “aha” that it tries to impart. Each verse begins the same way as its fellows, and each verse ends the same way: God, come rescue us. We are suffering here for want of you.

“O Come O Come Immanuel” was not written as much as it was grown — not from among the mountains, fields and forest rivers, nor from the bustle and jostle of our cities. It springs instead from the eternal longing in the human heart to transcend this sullied flesh and to connect with God. It is the prayer of a soul chained to the earth while it longs to dance in fields of glory.

“O Come O Come Immanuel” is not merely a hymn. It is Advent itself, given words and stretched over a frame of music that glides by as regularly as the chimes that call monks to prayer. It is a song that exudes the universal yearning for relief from the tedium of mortality. We are exiled here, we are under sentence of death, we are oppressed, we are weary. Come save us.

And always, in the same cadence that it gives voice to our longing, the carol returns to that same patient reminder: “Rejoice! Rejoice. Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

So we wait. Thousands of years ago God's people waited in faith for the coming of the promised deliverer, whose arrival we now celebrate from the vantage of a faith rewarded. We also wait for his promised return and the fulfillment of the deliverance that he began when he first arrived. And lastly we wait for him to come more fully into our hearts and change us.

You came into the darkness and you made a difference, Anglicans pray at this time of year. Come into the darkness again.

Even so. Come, Lord Jesus. We are waiting. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

O Come O Come Immanuel

1.O come, O come, Immanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

2. 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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

3. O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,

Us mortals by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
4. O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home ;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

5. O come, Adonai, Lord of might,

Who to thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

1 comment:

Minx McCloud said...

Thumbs up, Dave. And yet, when he finally appeared, many people did not believe he was the Messiah, so, there ya go. Why wish fervently for something only to disbelieve it when it happens? I always found that frustrating.