Friday, November 30, 2012

Advent: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, 
And ransom captive Israel, 
That mourns in lonely exile here 
Until the Son of God appear. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high, 
Who ordered all things mightily; 
To us the path of knowledge show, 
and teach us in her ways to go. 

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might, 
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height 
In ancient times gave holy law, 
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse's stem, 
From ev'ry foe deliver them 
That trust your mighty pow'r to save; 
Bring them in vict'ry through the grave. 

Oh, come, O Key of David, come, 
And open wide our heav'nly home; 
Make safe the way that leads on high, 
And close the path to misery. 

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high, 
And cheer us by your drawing nigh, 
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, 
And death's dark shadows put to flight. 

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind 
In one the hearts of all mankind; 
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, 
And be yourself our King of Peace. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!

November and December are my favorite months of the year. All vestiges of summer's oppressive heat and humidity are gone, the trees here in the Northeast drop their leaves after gracing all with their magnificent panoply of yellows, oranges, and reds, and  best of all  festivity constantly rules as we Americans celebrate the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Yet ... curmudgeon that I am, some common elements of the season, at least as it is celebrated in the early 21st century, bug me (maybe that's why I so appreciate Frank Costanza's "holiday" of "Festivus," the celebration of which began with the airing of grievances!). One of these is the relentless push to begin "holiday" preparations, and the constant playing of "Christmas" music, in early November, if not earlier. Another is the increasingly oppressive banality of said music itself, deliberately shorn of all "religious" sentiment, let alone content (for a similar complaint from theologian Roger Olson, see his post, "Merry Idolatry Season"). Another, less commonly expressed irritant is the lack of differentiation between, and consequent confusion of, the distinct seasons of Advent and Christmas. Christmas, at least as it has been celebrated historically according to the church's liturgical calendar, begins on Christmas Eve and continues for 12 days  hence "The Twelve Days of Christmas"  until the Feast of Epiphany on 6 January. But such technical niceties as this hardly ever concern American Christians, particularly those in its "Evangelical" manifestations, who are as likely to sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "Joy to the World" (the three greatest Christmas hymns) in early December as they are such Advent hymns as "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," whose lyrics I have reproduced above. And this is unfortunate.

What is missing in this conflationary confusion is the sense of anticipation and longing involved in the Advent season, in which the people of God place themselves in the shoes of those faithful Israelites who, for 500 years (!), even after the partial "return" from Babylonian exile, still awaited the full-blown end of their exile and Yahweh's return to Zion promised in Isaiah 40-55, not to mention the "shoot from Jesse's stump,"  the "branch from Jesse's root" (Isa 11:1), whose arrival was adumbrated/prefigured by the birth of one deemed "Immanuel" (i.e., "God with us") (Isa 7:14; 8:10; cf. Matt 1:23).

Sunday marks the beginning of the Advent season, and no hymn better expresses its thrust than "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." The hymn, as we Americans know it, is a 19th century translation, by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin, of the medieval hymn "Veni, veni, Emmanuel." Its music perfectly conveys the solemnity and longing portrayed by its words. And those words! Reading them again, I was struck by its up front declaration that the Israel of first century Palestine was de facto still in exile  a true sentiment, despite the incomprehensible resistance to this idea in some sections of New Testament scholarship. More importantly, it places the context of Messiah's advent in the national hopes of Israel for their "redemption" from exile. This is a context that individualistic American Christians perennially have difficulty grasping, but it emphatically is the correct place to start in understanding Jesus' famous statement in Mark 10:45 (for my exposition of this text, see my post here).

I leave you with a marvelous performance of the hymn by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, recorded at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, England, demonstrating once again the unsurpassed refinement of the Cantabrigian choral tradition.

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