Throughout Advent at St. Patrick, we sing that well known hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel. Both its imagery and its melody permeate our weekly worship. So, it’s not a bad idea to give the lyrics some of our attention, given that they capture two key ideas that can be insightful for us during this season.
Originally written in Latin in the 12th century and translated into English seven centuries later, in 1851, the hymn carries two major requests. It first entreats the Savior–whose name, Emmanuel, means “God-with-us,” to ransom captive Israel, and to release the people from their exile. Secondly, it begs God’s intervention so that there be victory over the grave, so that “death’s dark shadows” are put to flight.
Let’s take the first one, the imagery of a people bound in captivity. Why is this one a biggie? Because it is absolutely the central spirituality of the Old Testament. Over and over again the Pentateuch narratives (the stories of the first five books) and the preaching of the prophets remind the people of Israel that our God is a liberating God. It’s as if they say, on God’s behalf, “Remember? I’m the God who brought you out of Egypt. I’m a God who saves. Wherever and whenever the people of a community cry out in pain, I am here, to liberate, to set you free from whatever captivity holds you bound!” Throughout all the adventures of the people of Israel–the invasions by foreign powers, mis-directions, wanderings, misunderstandings, betrayals and losses, trials and tribulations–God’s voice roars out, “I’m here! Count on me! Trust in me! I am the One who Saves!”
What a marvelous spirituality for us today, during these turbulent times! It demands our trust that God does not let us down. Never has, never will. And while demanding our trust, it simultaneously offers us comfort and hope. We need never despair, because the Almighty One never, but never, lets us down.
The second theme of the hymn is on the darker side: Death casts a long shadow over life. How true … It does, doesn’t it? Our yearnings are real in that respect: we all sincerely hope that in some way there can be victory over the grave. This is where the Christ event matters, for we have received the invitation to eternal life. Great news indeed.
But I wonder is there an added nuance that can be of benefit to our spiritual life here? If death has been overcome, then there’s nothing to fear. If the greatest single force of destruction to our lives has been rendered powerless, then no other disruptive event can have power over us. We enter into a life with no fear. Imagine that. Neither animosity nor violence nor hatred nor disregard nor exclusion nor neglect can conquer us. Now there’s something to trust in Advent!
How sweet it is!
Director of Evangelization, Family Ministry and Adult Formation