Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Second Sunday in Advent: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

As I noted in last weekend's post, it is unfortunate that most contemporary American Christians conflate the historically distinct seasons of Advent and Christmas, both out of an apparent native aversion to historic liturgy and an unwitting acquiescence to the secular holiday that has grown up around the Christian one. Nevertheless, a reconsideration of what makes the season of Advent distinct and significant is, I believe, salutary.

What is often unrecognized is that Advent presents a dual vision. On the one hand, it is a time that we Christians can place ourselves back in an earlier time in the grand biblical narrative, the time in which pious Jews in de facto exile  even those living in the covenanted land  longed for God to make good on his promises to restore the Davidic throne and bring the kingdom of God in a second Exodus. On the other hand, it is a time when Christians can set their focus on the promised second advent of their king, a focus too often lost today in our mad rush to conform to the world's standards of what the "good life" is. Yet it is a focus to which we regularly give lip service to when we repeat the prayer given to us by our Lord: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And it is a focus that bears good fruit, as St. John claimed when he wrote that everyone who eagerly hopes for the Lord's "appearance" "purifies himself even as he is pure" (1 John 3:3).

The great Advent hymn, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," was written in 1744 by Charles Wesley, the greatest hymn writer God has given the church. Like his brother, John, Charles was a fine biblical student and theologian, and  as one expects in any Wesley hymn  scriptural allusions abound in this hymn. What distinguishes this hymn is its focus on both aspects of the Advent vision. The first verse begins with the longing for Israel's redemption that dominates the great chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah, the release from slavery and (spiritual) debt (i.e., sin) that would provide "comfort" (e.g., Isa 40:1) and "consolation" (cf. Simeon's hope in Luke 2:25) to Israel and issue in the salvation of the Gentiles (e.g., Isa 52:10). 

The second verse begins with clear allusions to the Gospel of Matthew in its declarations that Jesus came to "deliver" (i.e., "save") his people (Matt 1:21) from their sins and, in the words of the Magi, was "born king of the Jews" (Matt 2:2). And, though the words too restrictively circumscribe the kingdom of Christ to the realm of the heart, they do nicely point our ultimate gaze to the awaited consummation of the eternal kingdom to which we will be granted entrance solely by virtue of our union with Christ (though I am not entirely happy with the mode of expression inherited from medieval theological debates).

I leave you with an exquisite performance of this hymn, sung to the tune of John Stainer's (1840-1901) "Cross of Jesus," by the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge:

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