This Advent season, we’re going to prepare for Christmas by looking at some Advent and Christmas songs. Many of our Christmas songs are silly and meant just for fun. “Jingle Bells” is silly enough as it is, but many of us automatically take it a step further, and start singing the “Jingle Bells / Batman smells” version first. It’s not exactly Shakespeare.
But there are other songs that can actually teach us something. Today, we’re going to start with number 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The hymn was written by John Mason Neale, an English minister, in 1851, and other people have been fiddling with the verses ever since. But the roots of this hymn go back more than a thousand years. It’s been around for a while.
But instead of looking back, let’s spin the clock ahead:
On Easter night, when the risen Jesus was walking with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, he chewed them out for not believing the initial reports of the resurrection that they’d heard that day. In Luke 24:25, Jesus says, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things, and then enter his glory?” And then Luke says: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
Who is Jesus? How do we know who Jesus is? For the first Christians, the New Testament hadn’t been written yet. Whatever they knew about Jesus, they knew from the prophecies of the Old Testament. The prophecies of the Old Testament define and give shape to Jesus and tell us what his true mission was in this world.
That’s what this hymn is all about. In the five stanzas we’re looking at today, the name of Jesus is never mentioned. It’s built around some Old Testament titles that the Church applied to Jesus. A couple of them will be more obvious than the others…
(1) The first is “Emmanuel”. The name appears in Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah tells the King, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Matthew tells us that Emmanuel literally means, “God with us.”
In Jesus Christ, almighty God himself, the creator of the universe and all its billions of galaxies and trillions of stars, came down to earth and became a human being. God is not some remote being, lost in the vastness of the universe. God is with us. Through Jesus Christ, God really does understand what you’re thinking and feeling—all the hurts and struggles and pain.
(2) Second, the hymn calls Jesus the “root of Jesse.” Sometimes, we have the kids make a “Jesse Tree” for Advent, which represents these Old Testament prophecies. The “root of Jesse” image comes from Isaiah 11:1: ”A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
Jesse was the father of King David. The gospels call Jesus the son of David—meaning that he was a descendant of that royal line. So the stanza says, “O come, thou root of Jesse’s tree.” Like a king of old, Jesus is the one who leads through the battles of life. The original song says, “O come, thou rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.” Isaiah 11:4 says, “With the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” The word of God defeats all evil. Jesus is that Word, that power of God, that frees us from the slavery of sin, death, and the power of the Devil.
(3) The next three images are less familiar. Third, the hymn calls Jesus the “Key of David”. That comes from Isaiah 22:22: ”I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”
This is a prophecy about the authority of the coming Messiah. For us, Jesus, the key of David, is the one who opens “wide our heavenly home”—the power of Heaven in this world, and the eternal life of Heaven in the world to come. Jesus is the one who opens the doors.
(4) Fourth, the hymn calls Jesus the “Dayspring.” Technically, this one is from the New Testament. But it’s spoken by someone who stood in the prophetic line. It comes from Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Our stanza says, “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer / our spirits…; disperse the gloomy clouds of night.”
That comes from Luke 1:78 & 79:. In the New International Version, that lovely world “Dayspring” is translated less poetically but more literally as “the rising sun, “ but you get the point. In Jesus, our salvation comes: “…Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death…” —
Jesus is the one who drives away the “gloomy clouds,” the “Shades of night”, replacing our gloominess with hope and joy. In other words, Jesus came to make us happy! And that’s worth remembering whenever that proverbial “Christmas rush” starts to drive you over the wall. This is supposed to be fun. Are we having fun yet?
(5) The fifth image, ”Desire of nations”, comes from Haggai 2, verse 7: “I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory.” The story of the Wise Men was told to underscore the truth of this prophecy in the life of Jesus. Jesus was not just the Messiah for Israel, but for all the nations. Jesus is not just for those of us born into Christian families, but for all people everywhere, because all people need the blessings that only Christ can bring: “Deliver us from earthly strife.” The older version says, “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill all the world with heaven’s peace.”
(6) That’s the hymn itself. But something more needs to be said. Let’s go back to where we started. This hymn isn’t quite what it appears to be. The lyrics note says that this is a “Latin hymn”, and the name of the tune is given in Latin: “Veni” (or Come” ) Emmanuel”
And that’s all true. But actually, this is a modern hymn—well, modern as hymns go. It’s from the 1800s. There is no literal “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” hymn like this in the old Latin songbooks from the Middle Ages. The idea for each stanza comes from some Latin phrases that were said just in the daily prayers in the days just before Christmas.
Of course, the tune also makes it sound old. The music note says our tune is a French tune from the 1400s. It’s based on late Gregorian chant, and is meant to be sung in unison. It looks like it’s in four-part harmony, but that’s just to give the piano player something to do with his other nine fingers.
But again, there’s no old song exactly like this. Our song is a good imitation, but not quite authentic. It’s meant to sound old. And that’s ok. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
That’s the history lesson. But is there a spiritual truth to learn here? Our “translator”—the author—was John Mason Neale. Neale was a minister, and an important figure in something called “The Oxford Movement” in England in the 1800’s.
The Oxford Movement picked up where the Wesley brothers had left off. They were trying to revive the Church of England. Folks like Neale believed that what the church needed was to recover the simple faith of the Middle Ages—trusting in God more than our own cleverness.
We think someone has to convince us first, before we’ll believe. Work out all the science and history problems first. Explain the contradictions and uncomfortable things first. Then…maybe…maybe… I’ll believe.
Neale and his companions wanted people to believe first–and then figure out the details as we go along.
That seemed to be the old way, the way that had gotten people through the Barbarians and the Vikings, and endless rounds of the plague. How do we get back to that? And so Neale devoted himself to finding, translating, and in this case, inventing—ancient hymns from the Latin and Greek.
This modern hymn with its ancient feel reminds us that we are part of a much larger project, the work of God that extends far beyond our own generation. We are part of a communion of saints. There were Christians before us and there will be Christians who will come after us.
So now it’s time to ask ourselves: What will my legacy be? What testimony of faith am I going to leave behind for later generations of Christians? Will they look back to me as a model of the faith on which to build their future? Will they think of me as a hopeless black hole of fear and anger? Or will they think of me as a beacon of faith and hope and light and joy? That’s what Advent is all about. Are we going to receive Christ anew, both into our hearts and into our world?
And so we sing the chorus: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Every year, Advent reminds us that Jesus always stands ready to come into our hearts again, and be that true Emmanuel—God with us—now and forever. Amen.