Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Desperate Longing

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

A Desperate Longing: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Written in a minor key, perhaps this 12th Century Latin hymn is not at the forefront of our playlist when we think of Christmas carols.  It is however, at the forefront of human existence, human need, and the historical narrative of redemption.  It echoes the cry of every human heart whether they know or understand what it is they long for.  But in context, it resounds with the cry of God-fearing people who hunger for the appearance of Messiah, particularly the Old Testament people of Israel.  It was to them that the promise of Emmanuel was given, that is to say, that God would come near.  That is the meaning of Emmanuel in Isaiah 7:14, “God is near”.  Under the oppression of captivity the people of Israel yearned to be free, to see the Anointed One from God come to set them free in fulfillment of God’s promises.  The weight of their sin was now a palpable weight of human misery at the hands of their oppressors.  In their misery they cry, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”!  Let the power of God come and end our mourning!
The year is now 2013, and we are not under the bondage of a conquering nation.  Indeed, we are free, prosperous, and in the thinking of most Americans/westerners devoid of the mournful groveling that this song seems to represent…or are we?  You see for us this song may actually be more appropriate that for any other people.  For we are people who in reading the Old Testament Law understand that we are in bondage, cruel bondage, to something far more problematic than a foreign invasion.  We are under the bondage of our sin.  A problem that is ever-present, internationally pervasive, and for which there is no human hope.  So we sing.  And we do not sing this song for the sake of singing, but for the sake of souls yearning for a salvation that is both informed as to our sinful condition, and infused with the hope of the promises of God.  Namely that God will come near to us.  This is where all good Christmas must originate from, an awareness of our miserable plight and trust in the promises of God.
As we sing this song we are thankful that we have a broader perspective that will make the singing of other Christmas hymns more meaningful, for Christ has come, and in Him God has come near.  Emmanuel has happened!  The Savior has ransomed the once captive Israel of God, and He has done so one life at a time.  No longer are we in lonely exile, but in the warm confines of the King’s family palace!  The Dayspring has ignited the fire of life, love and adoration in the freeing work of the Gospel.  Indeed our Heavenly home is now open through Jesus Christ, God’s faithful work of becoming our Emmanuel.
Yet is appropriate to recall through this hymn the process and progress of our own salvation.  Recalling the misery of life before and without Christ, so that the appearance of Christ might become more precious to us.

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. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!
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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!
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. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!
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. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!
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. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!
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!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hark! The Joyful Christians Sing!

Christmas Hymns: A Call for Deeper Reflection

With the Christmas season now in full bloom around us, it is almost impossible to go anywhere where there are not Christmas carols playing.  While the familiar refrains bring a certain joy and nostalgia they also bring with them the danger of everything that is overly familiar: complacency.  I often marvel during the Christmas season how people who’s worldview and theology are so flagrantly non-Christians can sing such powerful words.  It is no less baffling that Christians can sing the great Christmas hymns in such a routine manner as to be unaffected by their message.  From one who is a lover of both theology and music, this ought not to be.  So in the following days I hope to remedy this complacency by rekindling your love for the hymns of Christ’s Incarnation.  Not to revive the nostalgia, but to revive a working knowledge that God was manifest in the flesh for us!  This Christmas season I will be posting reflections from Christmas hymns that provide for us perhaps the most full-orbed theology in any one genre of music.  For now consider why Christmas hymns are important:

1) They tell the story of the single most important event in history.

Christmas hymns tell the story of God’s invasion of time and space at the perfect time to redeem what is rightfully His.  In contradiction to the mythical gods of  folk lore who risked nothing, God put everything on the line in sending His Son and won the battle over sin, death, and Hell.  No other event in history matters if this one event did not happen.

2) They celebrate the miraculous.

A virgin who gave birth to an infant who was literally the Son of God, and yet her own flesh and blood by Divine conception!  That above everything else in the world qualifies as a miracle.  Christmas hymns celebrate God’s sovereignty over nature and the time God threw all the rules of biology out the window to become what we are so that we might become what He is and we are not.

3) They join us to the activity of Heaven.

Have you ever wanted to sing like an angel?  Then sing Christmas hymns!  Both the account of Christ’s birth and the glimpse into the future of Heaven provided in the Book of Revelation show us that angels are engaged in the singing of hymns that magnify the work of God in Christ.  Is there any greater song to join in?  I think not! 

4) They infuse us with the hope of the Gospel.

Joy to the world!  The Lord has come!”  If that does engender hope, I do not what will.  And yet it is not an abstract hope, for it is fundamentally the hope that comes from knowing that God has kept and will keep His promises.  The Gospel is God’s Good News, and there is not greater good news than the reality that God has come near in His Son.  He has made great promises, and greater than the promises is His keeping of them.

5) They link the pain of humanity to the exalted comfort of Deity.

Jesus came not as an untouchable emanation of God, he came as a human being made under the infirmities of a fallen world (Gal. 4:4-5) so that He would know every sting and temptation of human experience (Heb.4:15-16).  We do not trust, serve or worship a God Who does not relate, we have a God Who came precisely so that He could relate and yet rise above for our comfort!

And for many other reasons it is imperative that we not only enjoy the hymns of Christmas, but that we understand them as well.  Christmas will become a richer experience for you and me if we will take the time to understand what it is that we sing about.