O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: A Carol for Longing Hearts
Christmas time has come, and with it, all the familiar carols that fill our homes with cheer and our hearts with nostalgia. It is my favorite time of year and my husband’s too. In fact, singing carols at the top of our lungs is one of our favorite pastimes together. He takes the low harmony while I belt out a jolly (if slightly off-key) melody. We love the joy and gladness these songs evoke.
And yet, as we make our way through our repertoire of Christmas songs, one carol stands out amongst the others: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
In my youth, I never understood this song. I thought, “this is a song about Christmas, a celebration! The refrain literally says, ‘rejoice!’ So why does it sound so sad?”
“No thank you,” I thought, “I’ll take my beloved ‘Joy to the World,’ and ‘Angels We have Heard on High,’ – you can keep your sad, gloomy, very un-Christmas-y Christmas song.”
But as an adult, this song has undoubtedly become one of my favorites. Why? Because it speaks distinctively to hearts that have known suffering. As I’ve grown older, I’ve experienced many of the challenges that come with age: I’ve seen more suffering, dealt with more sickness, experienced more loss, and recognized more injustice in the world. While Christmas as a child was a joyful time marked by the anticipation of presents, it is now (though celebratory) also a time tinged with sadness as memories of loved ones lost and Christmases past are brought to the forefront of my mind.
Unlike most other Christmas carols which cheerfully celebrate the coming of the Savior, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” does so from the distinct perspective of a “captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile.” It is the lament and longing of a people in captivity, a people that aches for a savior with a desperation that only those who have suffered can know. This song is an appropriate one for Christmas as it looks to the coming of that Savior, who arrived as a child born in a humble manger.
Yet for Christians, it is an appropriate song year-round. As those who live in the theological tension of the “already, not yet,” we partake in Christ’s kingdom as new creations though our outer bodies are wasting away. We live in this present age while we look expectantly toward what is to come. As Paul says in Romans, “…the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” This is why Peter describes Christians as “sojourners and exiles” in this world, and why Hebrews states that we have “no lasting city here, but we seek the city that is to come.” In fact, even the song’s title, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which literally translates to “O Come, O Come, God with Us,” speaks to this very paradox: if God is already with us, why are we asking him to come? Because even as we wait for his second coming and for our own glorification as saints, God is with us even now.
The song’s musical structure and lyrics also point to this same phenomenon. The verses’ minor melody and references to “death’s dark shadows,” and “gloomy clouds of night” recognize the bitterness of this world while it’s encouraging refrain, which commands us to “rejoice” and reminds us that “Emmanuel shall come,” point us to the sweetness of the hope we have in Christ. Ultimately, the song speaks to a longing that is in every human heart: a longing for Emmanuel, God with us.
The darkness makes the light appear all the brighter. It is only when we recognize and lament the brokenness of this fallen world that we can wholeheartedly rejoice in the precious gift of our Savior. I believe this carol helps us to do exactly that.
So, in this Christmas season, whatever hardships you may be facing, I encourage you thus: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel shall come to thee, O Isreal.”
About the Author
Jo Wilbur is a Marketing and Communications Specialist at TCS and proud JMU grad who loves writing, shopping, and making new friends. She and her husband live in Purcellville and spend time together cooking plant-based meals, singing worship songs, and volunteering as Young Life leaders in their community.