It is Christmas time once again. So it makes perfect sense to pick up the Deus Vincit hymn series once again with my favorite carol: O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
I don’t remember hearing this song that many times as a little boy. Maybe because there was only a limited amount of space inside my young brain for Christmas songs and that space was filled with the Chipmunks’ Christmas Don’t Be Late, The Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick and Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree? There didn’t seem to be room (or capacity) for the more meaningful lyrics and complicated tunes. So it wasn’t until I was about twelve that I remember first taking notice of the haunting melody of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Over the years the tune has become tattooed on my brain. When the advent rolls around it becomes ever-present as I walk the hallways at work or drive around in the hustle of the holidays … which is, by the way, a good thing. I tend to get too involved in my driving and lose a little bit of my holiday cheer when someone pulls out in front of me and doesn’t accelerate. But having the thought of our Savior, Jesus Christ, coming to “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile” swimming around in my brain tends to shorten the duration and severity of my off-color and unspiritual moods.
Undeniably it is the deeper nature of the lyrics, along with the lingering tune, that will always make this song endure. The words reveal the spiritual intensity of the advent. Jesus, the Son of God, descending and condescending to live on earth is the fulcrum of history – the very point at which the trajectory of man caromed off of the arc of sin and into the course of grace.
We do not know who it was who wrote the hymn, but he understood that Jesus’ coming was nothing less than fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah bringing healing and rescue from the sinful nature with which man is encumbered. The original seven verses of the song all reference a different Jewish name for the coming Messiah: Immanuel (“God is with us”), “Wisdom from on high,” “great Lord of might,” “Branch of Jesse’s stem,” “Key of David,” “Bright and Morning Star,” and “King of Nations.” Together they speak of Jesus being the wise God, creator of everything, who came from the promised line to be our King, in order to comfort us and bring us peace.
Though we do not know who wrote those wonderful words, we know that he lived in the 8th century and was probably a monk. His dedication to God was evident through his intimate knowledge and loving caress onto paper of such beautiful thoughts about our Savior. And it is a divine thought that the work of a heart tuned to God can outlive the memory of the person who did that work. It should be a lesson to all of us that actions done for God are timeless and truly lasting.
Indeed the words endured for many centuries before they were paired with the 15th century French chant with which we are familiar today. It is always fascinating to think of the generations of Christians who have sung a tune or pondered the lyrics of a hymn. How many of them also were inspired to be better or to offer more of themselves to the glorious God whose praise we raise in the words, “O come, O Wisdom from on high, who ordered all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in its ways to go. Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel”?
The echo of the chant’s melody may rattle around within the mind, it may even haunt the soul in the more negative connotations of the word, but it also seems to draw the mind in – forcing the hearer to take notice of the lyrics; and it is the lyrics which prevail over the heart. “O come, O Bright and Morning Star, and bring us comfort from afar! Dispel the shadows of the night, and turn our darkness into light. Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”
Perhaps it is best that we only hear this tune and sing these words around the advent? Perhaps it is best for them to be novel after eleven months of silence? Perhaps it is best that we do not become used to its haunt or callous to its sentiment? Because each December I learn once again how beautiful it is that Jesus came to earth … and it is a nameless, eighth-century monk whose voice echoes down through the ages to prick my heart again and make me weep at the majesty of the Son of God coming to ransom captive Israel of which I am a sinful part.
Praise God for sending His Son to be with us.