So many of the songs we hear around Christmas time are cheery. From the secular “Holly Jolly Christmas” to the classic “Joy to the World”, most of the carols are focused on good cheer, happiness, togetherness, joy.
In contrast to these, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is written in a minor key. Its tune is simple and plaintive, and despite its call to the audience to “Rejoice!”, the minor key is never entirely shaken. It ends as it began—a lament through and through.
That lament is the Christmas spirit we’d rather ignore.
It’s a lament I didn’t understand before this year.
Christmas—or “Christ’s Mass”, as it was originally called—is, in the Christian church calendar, a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. But the season leading up to the twelve feast days of Christmas—a season that secular culture has largely neglected to appropriate—is called Advent, and it is essentially a season of lament.
Let’s go back to the days before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The concept of the Messiah goes back to the earliest writings in Jewish Scripture. Throughout the ups and downs of Israel’s history—from slavery to kingdoms to captivity and exile—God reiterated again and again His promise that a Deliverer would come, one who would end poverty, injustice, disease, and suffering forever.
But as the centuries dragged on, the suffering of the Jewish people intensified, and the promised Messiah still did not come. Those who awaited His coming mourned His absence. “How long, Lord?” they cried through psalms and prophecies. “How long until you deliver us?”
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear.
Century after century they waited, longing for His coming and for the healing He would bring.
And then, He came.
“and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.“Matthew 1:23
Of course, He didn’t come the way they had expected. Instead of defeating Israel’s earthly enemies and ending the Roman occupation, the Messiah had come to deliver them from the power of sin—to set up His kingdom first in the hearts of His followers before establishing it over the whole earth.
Even after He had died and been resurrected, instead of establishing the earthly kingdom right then and there, He gave His followers a mission: to spread the good news that Emmanuel had come, God dwelling with man, and that all who repented of their sin and trusted Him would be delivered, from the power of sin and, ultimately, from its eternal consequences.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell Thy people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
And then, He left.
He promised to come back. And since He had kept His promise the first time, coming exactly as it had been predicted He would, His followers knew He would return, just as He said.
But meanwhile, the brokenness of the world still raged on. Sinful people did awful things. Creation itself was broken, and illness and death continued to ravage the world. As one of Christ’s disciples wrote just a few decades after His crucifixion and resurrection,
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”Romans 8:22-23
The creation itself groans.
All around us we see a wounded creation filled with wounded people, longing for the end of all wounding. And the followers of Christ found themselves asking, like the faithful Jews of old, “How long, Lord?”
And so Advent came to be.
The followers of Jesus had joy because Emmanuel had come. They had hope because they knew He was coming back.
But they needed a space to mourn the brokenness that still existed in the world, brokenness that invaded both the hearts and the bodies of everyone on earth.
Advent became that space—a season where, during the darkest days of the year, the Christ-followers could mourn the darkness of a world in which Emmanuel was coming, but was not here yet.
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
You can feel the longing in the hymn—the aching in the hearts of a people who know that everything will be mended, yet still live in a world where it isn’t.
It’s a longing I didn’t quite understand until I lost my baby.
I had never felt death come so close as it did the day it entered my womb. I had never felt the brokenness of the world so keenly as the day I found out my child’s body had been sick beyond recovery, so sick that my body had become a tomb rather than a place that nurtured life.
For the first time, I felt that evil wasn’t just something that happened, an isolated event in an otherwise good existence. It was a force that had invaded every corner of our world, marring what was meant to be beautiful and destroying what was meant to bring joy. Evil twisted that which God made good, so that even though the world was overflowing with love and joy and beauty, those things could also be ripped away suddenly and without warning.
Babies shouldn’t die before their mothers.
And yet—as the days grew colder, shorter, darker—as the year wound down and we entered the season that the ancient Church called Advent—I felt that I, for the first time, understood the lament of this ancient hymn.
For the first time, I understood the ache that made the psalmist cry, “Lord, how long?” For the first time, I understood what Paul meant when he said the whole creation was groaning. For my body was groaning, my whole being lamenting the terrible wrongness of my child’s death.
It was as though I couldn’t truly long for everything to be made right until I first saw that it was broken.
I had known the world to be broken. I had lost loved ones. I had a chronic mental illness that reminded me almost daily of the ways in which my body and mind had been marred by the effects of darkness.
But the loss of my baby was a deeper sorrow, one that pervaded every corner of my being. One I couldn’t ignore, couldn’t escape from.
One I had to face.
And as I faced it, I understood the plea of the Christmas hymn in a way I hadn’t before.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”—come, because when You come, everything broken will be made whole. Come, because at Your coming every sorrow will be turned to joy, every wrong made right, every tear wiped away. For when God dwells with us, there will be no death, no dying, no night.
“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weepingIsaiah 65:8
and the cry of distress.”
Strangely, it was in the midst of my lament that I began to really understand the joy behind Advent’s sorrow.
For Advent wasn’t meant to be a forever sorrow. That’s why the church calendar has seasons; that’s why Advent is always, inevitably, followed by Christmas. During Advent, Christians acknowledge how deeply we yearn for Christ’s return, when everything will be made new—but then, as Christmas dawns, we are reminded that the hope and joy of His return is already ours. Just as the lament of Advent gives way before the joy of Christmas, these days of brokenness and sorrow will give way before the radiant joy of Christ’s return, and the lament-turned-celebration of this season roots our hearts in that wonderful reality.
That’s why the chorus of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a call to “Rejoice!” because “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Rejoice!—because His coming is a sure thing.
Rejoice!—for the healing of all illness, the mending of all brokenness, the righting of all wrongs, is a certainty.
Rejoice!—the literal, physical dwelling of God with us is a reality.
O come, Thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Yet even here the song dips back into a minor key. Even joy and hope are colored by lament.
There’s a significance in that, I think.
I would not have understood the hope of His coming if I had not first walked through some of the sorrows He came to soothe.
The Advent season—like the Christian life in general—is a constant tension between sorrow and joy. He came, and He is coming again, so we rejoice. But even as we wait with eager anticipation, we lament everything that is broken.
We sing “Joy to the World,” but we also plead “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
We frame the promise in a minor key—but still we sing, “Rejoice!”
Every hope is tinged with yearning. And every lament is lined with joy.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!