I love singing Christmas and Advent hymns. However, I find too often that I sing familiar words without giving much thought to their meaning. Therefore, I decided to spend some time reflecting on a few verses of one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
O come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lowly exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Dayspring, 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, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
The words of this hymn become more powerful to me when I think about the timing of Christ’s birth. There were 400 years between the end of the Old Testament and the events of the New Testament. The Israelites had spent centuries waiting on the Messiah. They were no strangers to exile and captivity, and they had longed for their Savior to free them from both physical oppression and the bounds of sin. While most of us would not be able to relate to experiencing physical captivity, we can probably think of a time when we longed to be rescued from circumstances or sin by someone more powerful than ourselves. Not only can Emmanuel rescue us, but He comes to be with us in our suffering.
The Israelites could rejoice in knowing God would send a Savior to them. Emmanuel, whose name literally means “God with us,” would come to them. They had experienced God’s presence before when He led them by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire and through the ark of the covenant, but now they would see Him in the form of the Son of Man. However, they had heard of His coming for many years, and they probably began to have doubts. How long would they have to wait? Had God forgotten them? Did He still care?
Now, from the perspective in the hymn, the Messiah was finally coming. God was finally fulfilling His promise, but He wouldn’t do it the way they expected. Who would have guessed that the Messiah would come as a baby who was born beside animals? Could this truly be the One who would save them? Of course, we as Christians today can see a larger piece of the puzzle, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Israelites wrestled with doubts and confusion.
How many times in our own lives has God answered prayers in ways we did not expect? We have our own carefully thought out plans for what we want God to do, but He has a different idea. Of course, His plan is always better, but it can be so hard to believe that in the moment. His plan for Israel and His people was far greater than they expected just as His plans for our lives always accomplish far more than we can imagine on our own.
In the second verse, the Messiah is referred to as a “Dayspring” or dawn. With His arrival would come light after long, gloomy darkness. Christ would free them from the clouds of captivity that hung over them. As Christians today, we can relate to the arrival of Christ in our lives and the light and freedom He brings. We can experience cheer and rejoice with His coming. Death no longer has the hold on us that it once had.
I included the last verse because of the hope it can give, particularly in the USA where we experienced such a divisive election recently. Jesus brings peace and binds hearts in agreement of truth and righteousness. He alone can heal our divisions that are often accompanied with so much anger and hatred. He will bring an end to animosity, violence and suffering once and for all. There is no feud or longstanding disagreement that He can’t repair. He is our hope if we continue to invite Him here.