The holidays are here which means you're going to hear Christmas music everywhere you go. Some of the songs are catchy, and others...well... I'll just say they aren't as catchy. Christmas music is something that is easily recognizable; yet much of it is undefined or taken for granted. These songs have memorable melodies, but have you ever thought about where they came from? Or what the lyrics mean? There are messages untouched by time i some of these songs that still speaks to people.
Perhaps one of the oldest songs that remains popular to this day is 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.' This hymn dates all the way back to the 8th century A.D. where it was chanted as a prayer in monasteries by monks as Christmas approached. It was not actually sung as a hymn until 12th century A.D. when it was rearranged by an unknown Latin poet. Finally, in 1851, it was translated from Latin to English by Dr. J.M. Neale, which is how many of us would recognize it today.
But what does this hymn actually mean? Why has it prevailed so strongly throughout time? The word “Emmanuel" provides great substance as to what this hymn is about. “Emmanuel” simply means “God with us.” The meaning of Emmanuel is important to know to better understand the meaning behind the lyrics:
The Jewish people of Israel were anticipating the longawaited promise made by God. The name “Israel” in its original language is a combination of “wrestle or struggle" and “God”, thus the name of Israel can mean “To struggle with God.” Perhaps to struggle in believing the promises of God, or to struggle in submitting to God, or struggling to entrust one’s fidelity to God. Everyone struggles. Whether the struggle is in marriage, in the workplace, with family, with fighting addictions, battling depression, or just making it through the day. The cry of this song is that God would come and be with His people in the midst of the struggle and that He would ransom them, set them free from sin and its consequences.
This is why Jesus is so central to all the promises of God. Jesus is "God with us." Jesus is God stepping into the mess that we have made of the world and, rather than being distant and careless, He is a God who is willing to stoop down to our level and have compassion on us. Instead of a God who is an obscure and abstract concept, Jesus comes to us as a God who is earthy, not ignorant of suffering and the pain of loss.
This hymn was originally written with the longing that God would be with us, and that we would know what God is like. In Christ, Emmanuel, both of those longings are met.
For a more in-depth study of the meaning behind O Come, O Come Emmanuel, check out the first week of our Advent sermon series here.