Recovering Doctrinal Greatness Through Advent/Christmas Hymns ©

Even when announced and printed in the bulletin, as I turn in my hymnal to #211 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211), the words from this great hymn slip in on me and catch me by surprise. They manage to be at once both a caress and a jolt. I suspect that there is no greater Advent hymn than this one. The music is sublime, the words poetic, and the theology arresting in its greatness.

A footnote in The United Methodist Hymnal tells us that it comes from the 9th century. It adds that the original verses were in Latin. A modest amount of internet digging reveals that it has roots even deeper than that. Wikipedia notes that it probably came originally from a series of “plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas.” More, so much more, than just a catchy tune, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” plunges us into the depth of Christian doctrine.

Consider the first verse:

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.

Springing from the biblical texts of Isaiah 7:14 (“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”) and Matthew 1:23 (Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. [Emmanuel means “God with us.”]), the song not only captures our longing for a Savior but denotes our exile from our proper home with God. It does all this through adherence to the Hebrew Text (Old Testament) and the historical reality of the Babylonian exile. Taken as a whole the longing evokes a theological awareness of how lost we are without a Savior.

Thus in a few short verses this great hymn shatters any self-help notions of personal salvation. We too are Israel; we too are lost and stand in need of a Savior.

Look at verse three:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The words of this version of the hymn in verse three were translated by H. S. Coffin in 1916. The emphasis is on our need for divine help and for the “ordering” of all things, both far and near. The very concept of biblical wisdom is a gift from the Holy Spirit. The verse faces without flinching how disorderly our world is. Have you read the headlines or watched the news lately?

As in all the verses, the refrain brings us back to the great promise of salvation. We who live in a disordered world desperately needing wisdom from on high searching for the path of knowledge move towards a Bethlehem stable with joy. Emmanuel, God with us, will come to us. In the chaos of our day and time, this is surely the greatest news we can ever receive!

With news of North Korea conducting missile tests, the ever-continuing war in the Middle East, and violence in our own cities, the seventh verse almost demands to be sung.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

We are in the midst of international strife, whether the nations (including our own) realize it or not. Christ is the deepest desire of our hearts and minds. As the Prince of Peace approaches, rightly we pray for and work towards peace; “bind all people in one heart and mind!”

Notice too as you sing, how the verse bids us lay down sin both individually and collectively. “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease.” The version of this verse contained in The United Methodist Hymnal offers a slightly different rendering: “From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.” It recognizes and offers our highest allegiance to the creator God who comes to us in the baby, Emmanuel, God is with us! Notice how the seventh verse spills forth in a prayer, “fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

There is more, much more to said and shared, but I invite us to not only sing the hymns of Advent/Christmas but also to take the time to dwell in deep reflection on the wisdom and doctrinal greatness of the words. In the music, sung, chanted and prayed, God speaks to us once again.

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