“For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.”Galatians 5:5
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
This anonymous translation of a Latin hymn doubles as a prayer for the first and second coming of Christ. It takes us into the mind of old Israel, longing for the first coming of the Messiah. And it goes beyond that longing by voicing the yearning of Christ-followers for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, to complete the history of redemption.
Emmanuel’s arrival was only the beginning of redemption. The final blood is shed. The debt is paid. Forgiveness is purchased. God’s wrath is removed. Adoption is secured. The down payment is in the bank. The future is sure. The joy is great. But the end is not yet.
Death still snatches away. Disease still makes us miserable. Calamity still strikes. Satan still prowls. Flesh still wars against the Spirit. Sin still indwells. And we still “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We still “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7). We still wait for final deliverance “from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). We still “wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5). The longing continues.
The common tune, linked with these lyrics in 1851 by Thomas Helmore, captures the melancholy mood of longing. It is not the same as the exuberant “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” or the vigorous and bounding, “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King.” It is an excellent musical match to the mood of the song. Longing. Aching. Yearning. Hoping.
The Christian life oscillates between these two poles: the overflowing joy of the “already” redeemed (Ephesians 1:7) and the tearful yearning of the “not-yet” redeemed (Ephesians 4:30). Not that we ever leave the one or the other in this life. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
It is a wonderful thing that there are Christmas carols that are written for the real world of sorrowful joy, as well as the real world of exuberant joy. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of them. You can hear it in the “O” that begins every verse: “O come, Emmanuel.” “O come, Rod of Jesse.” “O come, Dayspring.” “O come, Key of David.” “O come, Desire of nations.” This is the “O” of longing, and each name of Jesus is full of hope.
Artistically, the rhythm of plaintive longing in the verses, punctuated with powerful bursts of joy in the refrain, are just about perfect. The mystery and the wonder of Christian living are captured. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Already. But not yet. Fulfillment of glorious promises—yes! But fulfillment in the new earth with new bodies and no sin—not yet.
We are left confident, but still crying out: “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”