o come o come Immanuel

(This bloggage was sent around the EBA Ministers as a ‘Thought for the week’ last week.)

bus stop 14

This is from a bus stop, where many people have waited…

This is the time of year when we sing the Advent carol ‘O come, O come Immanuel’. The words are lovely, helping us capture a sense of the mind-set of those who were waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for the Messiah. The words also help us anticipate what the Messiah will do. Each verse picks up and aspect of who the Messiah will be from scripture while the mournful tune adds to that sense of sadness that nothing seemed to have happened yet for those anticipating the Messiah.

1 O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

2 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.


3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.


4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.


5 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.


6 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.


7 O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.


The carol was originally sung in Latin based on an 8th century poem, and was sung antiphonally rather than in verses. The music comes from a 15th century French Requiem Mass. It was translated in the middle of the 19th century by John Mason Neale. There is so much that is rich and deep in the carol. And I enjoy singing it. (Although there are occasions when, usually if it is played too slowly, the carol sounds miserable; the ‘rejoice’ refrain sounds despondent; and it seems never ending. At those moments I really struggle with the concept that such amazing concepts about the Messiah we anticipate could be made to sound so glum and dour.)

Consider for a moment the names given to the Messiah expressed in the carol:

Immanuel – God with us (Isaiah 7:14)

Wisdom from on high (1 Corinthians 1:30)

Great Lord of might (Adonai – Exodus 19:16)

Branch of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1)

Key of David (Isaiah 22:22)

Bright morning star (Luke 1:78-79)

King of nations (Revelation 19:16)

Roll them around in your mind and savour them. Spend some time with them.

They are astonishing names that reveal the identity, lineage, nature and destiny of the Messiah. Sometimes the way we sing the carol makes them sound like a mournful eulogy rather than a joyous declaration (compare the way the last verse is sung with the Hallelujah chorus, for example – both have the same theme!). But there is something significant about the gentle, haunting melody of this carol that reminds us of the waiting, longing, anticipation for such an amazing One. And that is a theme that many find helpful, especially those for whom the Advent / Christmas season is difficult as it reminds them of loss, unfulfilled hopes and dreams and past pain. It is worth bearing this in mind in the tinsel twinkling carols-by-candlelight ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ descant moments of this season. This carol reminds me that Christmas is a season for all, but only if we make space for all.

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