O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

As we move through the final days of Advent and into the season of Christmas, I'm going to take a two-week break from our devotional study of Ephesians. From today through the end of the year, my reflections will be inspired by the music of Advent and Christmas. Each reflection will be rooted, as always, in Scripture. But the exposition will draw from the lyrics of a seasonally appropriate hymn, carol, or song.

Today's reflection is sparked by one of the most popular Advent hymns, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." This hymn, originally composed in Latin, is one of the oldest in any hymnal. It is based on an even older set of prayers, known as the "O Antiphons." An antiphon is a sung response to a psalm or other biblical text. The O Antiphons, deriving from the eighth century A.D., if not earlier, are a series of seven musical prayers beginning with "O" and a title of Jesus. After some brief elaboration on the implications of this title, the O Antiphons ask Jesus to come. For example, the seventh antiphon reads in English translation, "O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the gatherer of the people and their Saviour: come Thou to save us, O Lord our God." As you can see, this antiphon inspired the first verse of the hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Other verses were inspired by other antiphons.

Crying out for Emmanuel (or Immanuel; the spelling varies) to come is a response to a prophetic text in Isaiah. In Isaiah 7:14, the prophet says, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." In light of the miraculous birth of Jesus, Christians have understood this verse referring to Jesus (see Matt. 1:22). He was born of a virgin. He was quite literally Emmanuel, which is an English rendering of the Hebrew phrase that means "with us God."

The lyrics of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" are far removed from joyful celebrations of Christmas. When we sing this song, we put ourselves into the place of "captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here." We pray to be set free "from Satan's tyranny" and to be saved "from depths of Hell." We ask our coming Lord to "disperse the gloomy clouds of night" and "death's dark shadows put to flight." In some years, these words might seem overly glum, disconnected from our blessed lives. But this year is different, partly because our hearts have been broken by the senseless killing of so many innocent people in Newtown, Connecticut. We mourn with those who have lost loved ones. We all have caught a glimpse of "Satan's tyranny" and yearn for God to send away "death's dark shadows." We long for the day when God's kingdom will come, when his justice will prevail over all the earth, and when he will wipe away every tear. Sorrow intensifies our Advent hope for God's future.

As we long for the second coming of Emmanuel, there is much we cannot understand about our world. We cannot fathom why the innocent suffer, why evil has such opportunity, why God does not make things better right now. But, in our perplexity, we do know something that keeps us going, something that strengthens us in the midst of sorrow and confusion. We know that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. In our pain and puzzlement, God is with us. In our sadness and yearning, God is with us. In our doubt and fear, God is with us. Through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit, God is with us. And not just with us, but for us, beside us, before us, behind us, within us, and among us. So we are comforted, even as we pray, "O Come, O come, Emmanuel."

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: In what ways are you longing for Emmanuel to come today?


O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.

P.S. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is in the public domain. This Advent hymn reflects the mid-nineteenth century translation by John M. Neale. There are many different versions in circulation, with many different verses. I have chosen some of the common ones for this prayer.