Summary: I have always wanted to so an Advent series based on traditional Christmas carols/hymns. We've gotten so used to them that I think we miss the depth of the theology contained within in them. One of the most ancient is the beautiful hymn that contains the ancient names of Jesus.
I love the way that Pastor and author Robert J. Morgan describes hymns:
“Hymns help us praise God. They’re shafts of brilliant sunlight through the clouds. They provide an almost mystical connection with the endless anthems of praise raising at this very moment before the heavenly throne. They unite the Lord’s earth-bound church in heavenly harmony.” (“Then Sings My Soul,” p. xi)
“… shafts of brilliant sunlight through the clouds … an almost mystical connection ….” Today marks the first Sunday … the first day … of Advent … the season in the church year where we prepare ourselves … our hearts … our homes … our lives … for the coming of the Messiah. I think it’s important for us to stop for a moment on this day and remember just what this season is all about.
While the Christmas countdown clock has already started ticking away for many of us, we actually have four whole weeks laid out ahead of us … plenty of time for us to stop and ponder the wonder … indeed, the miracle … of Jesus’ arrival. While Christmas seems to be coming too fast for us, let’s not forget that for the people of Israel … the people who waited for generations upon generations for the coming of the Messiah … that blessed day could not come soon enough.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we ponder the promises. We strain to see the dawn of salvation. We know that when it comes, the waiting will be over. When Emmanuel arrives … when the Dayspring rises … we learn that redemption has only begun. To be sure, as one author put it, “it is a magnificent only.” The final blood has been shed. The debt is paid. Forgiveness is purchased. God’s wrath is removed. Adoption is secured. The down payment is in the bank. The first fruits of the harvest are in the barn. Our future is sure. Our joy is great … but the end is not yet.
Death still stalks the earth. Disease still makes us suffer. Calamity still strikes. Satan is still on the prowl. Flesh still wars against the spirit. Sin still dwells in our hearts. And, as the Apostle Paul puts it, we still “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We still “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1st Corinthians 1:7). We still “wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5). The longing continues.
And so, this morning, I thought we might … for a moment … think about the meaning of Advent … that time of waiting … of preparation ... that the Israelites experienced … in the hopes that we too might catch a glimpse of the glory that is truly the reason for the season. It seems to me that the perfect way for us to do just that is to hear and think about one of the oldest and most beloved hymns of the season: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” dates all the way back to the ninth century … where it was sung in Latin and used in formal Catholic masses. Because it was written sometime during the 800’s, we don’t know who the actual author or authors of the hymn may be but their many references and depth of knowledge concerning the Old and New Testaments suggests that it was written by a monk or priest … or a number of monks and priests over the centuries.
When first written, the Latin text of the hymn … “Veni, Emmanuel” … contained seven different verses or stanzas … each one representing a different view (or name) of the Messiah. It was known as the “O Antiphonals” because each verse began with the word “O.” It was sung or chanted … a capella … one verse per day during the last seven days before Christmas.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was more than just a hymn. It served as a sort of ‘catechism’ or teaching tool for the early church. Few people in the Dark Ages had a Bible or access to a Bible … and even if they did, most of them couldn’t read. This hymn was one of the few examples they had of the full story of how the New Testament and Old Testament views of the Messiah came together in the birth and life of Jesus. It brought the story of Christ the Savior to life during the hundreds of years when little else was available to the common people … and for this reason, could really be considered one of the most important songs in the history of the Christian faith.
The hymn gained world-wide acceptance when it was discovered by John Mason Neale … an Anglican priest who, because of his evangelical and progressive beliefs … was banished to a little island off the northwest coast of Africa called “Madeira.” Not having much to do at this remote outpost, Neale studied and read scripture and scripture-based literature voraciously. When he came across the Latin Chant “Veni, Emmanuel,” he recognized how important the hymn was … and so, translated it into English for more accessible use. That was the beginning of the world-wide spread of this hymn that has now been translated into scores of languages and is sung by Christians around the world.