My favorite Christmastime hymn is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It sums up for me the longing and the focus of Advent: Come peace, come joy. Come God, be with us. We prepare for the birth of Christ, who brings peace and joy and is Emmanuel, God with us.
The song comes from the “O Antiphons,” Gregorian Latin chants sung each day of the week leading up to Christmas Eve. Each chant calls out to Christ using different names given him in Scripture—O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of Nations, O Emmanuel. The O Antiphons originated in the 8th century (and possibly before) and were popular during the Middle Ages. The English translation we sing today is thanks to Anglican priest and scholar John Mason Neale, who found and translated the chant in the early 19th century. Composer Thomas Helmore then paired the translation with a 15th century processional anthem for French Franciscan nuns called Veni Emmanuel, and its popularity grew—including appearing as hymn 211 in The United Methodist Hymnal.
The chants and the now-hymn rely heavily on Isaiah, which is also where the lectionary points us for the first Sunday of Advent, to Isaiah 64:1-9. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” states the first verse. Sometimes our yearning for Emmanuel is this palpable. I feel it distinctly at Advent, with the long nights and bare trees and cold fingers, in this world in which we must spend precious time arguing the existence of privilege and of racist and misogynist systems when we should be using our time working together to change them. During Advent the sorrow feels a little deeper, perhaps because the joy promised in the coming Christ feels a little closer. It’s not always comfort that brings us closer to God. So embrace this time of yearning for Emmanuel, and prepare to be bearers of joy as we work to be God’s agents of peace. God is with us—it’s up to us to follow God’s lead. Merry Christmas.