O come, O come Emmanuel!

‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ Mark 13:24-37

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During Advent, we are reflecting on a hymn or carol. This week we focus on our first hymn today, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

The season of Advent begins with a gospel that shakes and stirs. It is a clarion call to re- orientate our lives on Christ as we prepare not only to celebrate his birth at Christmas but also for his return at the end of time. This is the liturgical season that knits together time and eternity, judgement and love. For the gospel writer, our task as Christian people is clear; we are to, ‘Keep awake!’

‘Keep awake!’ For those who have difficulty sleeping, a command to ‘keep awake’ is no problem at all. Yet this command is more than a command not to fall asleep. It is a command to re-orientate our lives in order that we might carry out our vocation to be people who watch out for and recognise the things of God. It is an invitation to attune our ears for the music of God’s voice in and through the chaos of the world.

As we pray the words of the great Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, we hear afresh the yearning for the Son of God to come into our lives and the life of the world.

Originally written in Latin, it is thought that the hymn may have its origins in monastic life in the 8th or 9th century. In the last seven days of Advent, during Vespers, the monks would sing what is known as the O Antiphons. Each antiphon is a name of Christ, one of his characteristics that is found in the Bible. They are:

  • 17 December: O Wisdom
  • 18 December: O Lord
  • 19 December: O Root of Jesse
  • 20 December: O Key of David
  • 21 December: O Dayspring
  • 22 December: O Lord of Might
  • 23 December: O God with Us

In his book, Expectant, the writer Jim Cotter develops these traditional Advent antiphons finding new ways to speak about Christ. Using the well- known tune of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Cotter suggests that we should sing a verse each day of December as we wait for the kettle to boil or for the computer to wake up. Here are some of my favourites:

‘O come, O come, thou healing host around whose table none can boast, who welcomes home the stigmatized, their rightful place now realised. Rejoice! Rejoice! By touching hand together all in God shall stand.’

‘O come, O come, thou morning star, a point of light so singular, an unexpected hope so bright that puts our grey despair to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! The radiant dawn shall soon console the hearts that mourn.’

‘O come, O come, appointed one, to be God’s love for everyone, to speak on God’s behalf and show as much of God as need we know. Rejoice! Rejoice! A fragrant oil shall soon anoint for blessed toil.’

Sometimes as we pray, the traditional names for Christ such as we find in our hymn speak to us. On other occasions, a fresh imagery might be more helpful.

This year in the Church of England’s Christmas Campaign, Comfort and Joy, we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. It may feel very hard to sing ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’ in our current context. Yet as our hymn reminds us, over the centuries, God has faithfully stood alongside God’s people in good times and in challenging times too. Rejoice! Emmanuel, which means God with us, is born into the darkest of situations and the most difficult of times. Rejoice! Emmanuel, God with Us, stands alongside us all the days of our life and into eternity. Rejoice! The way in which we live our lives has changed this year, but God’s constancy, love and mercy is changeless. Christmas will be different. But let us ‘keep awake’ as we prepare to welcome the birth of Christ in new and creative ways.

Rev Canon Nikki Arthy

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