O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

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Almost every holiday season, a familiar song will strike me in a new way. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” When I heard it on the radio recently, the word “ransom” caught my attention. In the song, we adopt the persona of the people of ancient Israel summoning God to obtain their release from captivity. The first verse of the song says:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appears

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 

Shall come to thee O Israel”

The people are begging God to hear their cry and save them from their exile. In other verses, the people ask God to free them from Satan’s tyranny and save them from the depths of hell. Then they ask God to drive away the night and bring them light. The people ask for God to close the path to misery later in the song.

“Rejoice! Rejoice” repeats in every verse, but the rest of the refrain explains the reason to rejoice: God shall come someday and rescue them. But that day is not today in the song. That day is in the future at an unknown time. The people are hanging their hope on the idea that God will rescue them even though they struggle and live in misery now. In reminding themselves to rejoice that there will be an end to their suffering at some point, they also remind God of his promise to come to their aid.

This Advent hymn, which has origins that span over 1,200 years, is a song of lament in keeping with the tradition of lament found in the Psalms when the authors cry out for God’s intervention. In Psalm 44 (v. 23-26), the author said:

“Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.

Rise up and help us;

   rescue us because of your unfailing love.”

The people of ancient Israel didn’t gloss over their hard times but told God directly what was on their minds. Then they claimed God’s goodness and faithfulness by reminding God of his love for them, by recalling how great things had been in the past, or by telling God how faithful they had been to him. They weren’t afraid to be honest with God. And neither should we.

When we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we channel the plight of the Israelites of old but can take comfort in their open and forthright relationship with God. We can also express our pain to God in excruciating detail. But then, let us follow the song and the Psalms and hang on to God even in the midst of struggle. We can express our belief that God is ever-present and has not abandoned us. We can rest in the hope that Jesus brought to earth when he was born. We believe that the Son of God, in fact, has already appeared in order to save us.   

We can be authentic and truthful with our God and trust that he hears our cries. We can ask God for comfort and claim the promise of God’s love for us. After all, Emmanuel means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Let us call on God to be with us and be involved in our lives in both the good times and the bad. Come, Emmanuel, come.      

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