This translation of an anonymous Latin hymn doubles as a prayer for the first and second coming of Christ. It takes us into the mind of old Israel, longing for the first coming of the Messiah. And it goes beyond that longing by voicing the yearning of the church of Christ for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, to consummate the history of redemption.
This makes the carol especially apt for Advent. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we put ourselves in the shoes of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and all the pre-Christian saints. We ponder the promises. We strain to see the dawn of salvation. But we know that when it comes, the waiting will not be over.
When Emmanuel arrives — when the Day-spring rises — we learn that redemption has only begun. To be sure, it is a magnificent only. The final blood is shed. The debt is paid. Forgiveness is purchased. God’s wrath is removed. Adoption is secured. The down-payment is in the bank. The first-fruits of harvest are in the barn. The future is sure. The joy is great. But the end is not yet.
Death still snatches away. Disease still makes us miserable. Calamity still strikes. Satan still prowls. Flesh still wars against the Spirit. Sin still indwells. And we still “groan, awaiting our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We still “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7). We still wait for final “deliverance from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). We still “wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5). The longing continues.
Still Longing at Christmas
The common tune, linked with these lyrics in 1851 by Thomas Helmore, captures the plaintive mood of longing. It is not the same as the exuberant “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” or the vigorous and bounding, “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King.” It is an excellent musical match to the mood of the song. Longing. Aching. Yearning. Hoping.
The Christian life oscillates between these two poles — the overflowing joy of the “already” redeemed (Ephesians 1:7) and the tearful yearning of the “not-yet” redeemed (Ephesians 4:30). Not that we ever leave the one or the other in this life. We are always “sorrowful yet rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
It is good to have Christmas carols that capture both dimensions of life.
My guess is that, as we move toward Christmas, most Christians experience sadness and excitement. We must never let the sadness ruin the simple joy of the children. Most of them have not lived long enough to suffer. Let them see as much brightness as they can in Jesus. But let’s not think that Advent must be all jolly and jingle bells.
The Serious Sorrow in Our Joy
About 3.7 million people will die during Advent worldwide, half a million of them children. About 105 persons every minute. Most of them without hope. A tiny fraction of these make the news — like some victims of terrorism. The vast majority groan and die unknown except to a few close at hand. Such sorrows touch every Christian. We know someone who is dying, not to mention the hundred miseries that make living hard.
It is a wonderful thing that there are Christmas carols that are written for the real world of sorrowful joy, as well as the real world of exuberant joy. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of them. You can hear it in the “O” that begins ever verse: “O come, Emmanuel.” “O come, Rod of Jesse.” “O come, Day-spring.” “O come, Key of David.” “O come, Desire of nations.” This is the “O” of longing.
And every name for Jesus is full of hope.
- As Emmanuel (Isaiah 8:8) — “God with us” — he will pay the ransom that only a God-man can pay.
- As Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), springing from a dead stump, he will free his people, by death and resurrection, from Satan’s tyranny, and make them free forever.
- As the Day-spring (Luke 1:78) — the dawn of God’s kingdom — he will be the light of the world, and banish the hopelessness of darkness.
- As the Key of David (Isaiah 22:22), he rescues us from hell, locks the door behind us, unlocks the door of heaven, and brings us home.
- And as the Desire of nations (Haggai 2:7), he will draw the ransomed from every people and make them a kingdom of peace.
This is who Jesus is. This is what he already achieved and will complete. And so with every verse, the refrain reaches down musically into our weak hearts and pull us up, in faith, to see the certainty of the end.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Artistically, the rhythm of plaintive longing in the verses, punctuated with powerful bursts of joy in the refrain, are, to my mind, just about perfect. The mystery and the wonder of Christian living are captured. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Already. But not yet. Fulfillment of glorious promises — yes! But consummation in the new earth with new bodies and no sin — not yet. We are left confident, but still crying out: “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”