Many people don’t realize that Advent is meant to prepare us for Jesus’ Second Coming in the Flesh even more than it is meant to remind us of His First Coming as a babe. Fortunately, many of the old Advent carols that are sung today resonate this understanding beautifully. Let’s take a look at one.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a 12th century hymn set to the tune of a 15th century French funeral processional. John Neale translated it into English in 1851. These facts alone tell us something about how earlier Christians viewed the Advent and Christmas seasons. For them, death was not a stranger, nor locked away in special buildings, in hospitals or mortuaries. Instead, it was a somewhat dour acquaintance who visited every home from time to time to take family and friends on a long voyage. Everyone had to make the voyage eventually; some simply left before others. Putting Advent lyrics to a funeral hymn reminded all concerned that Christ came to judge the living and the dead, and the second group was a lot larger than the first.
The song’s name is, of course, drawn from the first line of its first stanza. This line is given to us on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in the first reading: Is 7:14 “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel [God with us].” Not only does this verse remind us of the several captivities that Israel suffered, both to foreign rulers and to sin itself, it references a deeper failing. The reason the prophet speaks these words is precisely because the king doesn’t have the backbone to ask for a sign. We are often warned from the pulpit not to test God. We should remember this passage, when God demanded that we test Him. There is a lesson here: sometimes God insists that we ask for the impossible, just so He can deliver. We should not lose hope if He does not deliver as we expect, or on our timetable. The prophet who spoke these words nor the king who heard them lived to see them fulfilled. But they were fulfilled.
The second stanza reminds us of Proverbs 2:6-8, “For the LORD gives wisdom, from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; He has counsel in store for the upright, he is the shield of those who walk honestly, guarding the paths of justice, protecting the way of his pious ones.” When it comes to God, the path of knowledge always leads through a person. In this case, it is the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The third verse is now the basis for the Christmas Vigil Mass Gospel reading. Though the reference itself is Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse” Jesse was the father of David, David was Israel’s second and greatest king, and Jesus was his direct descendant, as the first half dozen words of Matthew’s Gospel point out. David won victories over every enemy who opposed him. Jesus won the victory over mankind’s greatest enemies, the devil and the death he administers. This verse reminds us that we are in a war, and the enemy has many prisoners of war. We need to free them.
The fourth verse begins with the prophecy made by John the Baptist’s father, as soon as he regained his voice. He had been struck mute for daring to question God’s ability to bring forth a son out of his marital relations. His first words after regaining his voice are not a complaint, but a glorious celebration of God’s wonders. When you sing this verse, think of a time that you questioned God’s ability to deliver, and He came through anyhow. Did you praise Him with anything approaching the beauty of Zechariah’s canticle?
The fifth verse refers to Isaiah 22:22, the verse traditionally used to demonstrate Christ’s gift of His own authority to Peter, “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder.” This verse in turn refers to Isaiah 9:6 “The government shall be upon His shoulder.” God established a Church, His Bride, to help us reach the land He won for us through His shed blood.
The celebration of prophecy fulfilled continues with the sixth verse’s reference to Exodus 19:17-19, “Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the LORD came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder.” Note the connection between the scene here and the scene on Pentecost Sunday, when the Fire of God swept down from heaven and engulfed the apostles, giving them the ability to communicate to all people. The Law is universal, the languages communicate it to all.
The seventh verse again calls us back to Isaiah, this time to verse 11:10, “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” This re-iterates the resonance of the previous verse. Even the Gentiles are called, even secular rulers will acknowledge themselves subservient to the King of Kings, and all will seek His mercy.
The eighth and last verse is appropriate to the song. Christ died on the sixth day, lay in the tomb on the Sabbath, the seventh day, and rose the next day, which is the eighth. Throughout Scripture, the number eight resonates with the Resurrection. It is in this signal event that all our hopes lie. As Paul stated so succinctly, “If He is not risen, our Faith is in vain.” His Resurrection is the one thing all non-Christian heresies unite in denying. Yet it is exactly His Resurrection and the incredible gift He has given us through that Resurrection, which makes Isaiah’s words linger in our minds long after the hymn is done. “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. “
May God grant a blessed Advent and a blessed death to us all.