Funny thing… the tones are minor. While O Come Emmanuel has been arranged innumerable ways in the 1,200 or so years of the hymn’s existence, it is almost exclusively set with a slow tempo in a minor key. It doesn’t sound like most Christmas songs; it doesn’t sound happy.
We don’t sing it because we want people to be sad at Christmas. The slow tempo and minor key don’t necessarily have to be sad; O Come Emanuel is not a sad song. But there is dissonance (especially to our western ears).
I think we do well at the beginning of Advent to acknowledge, even marinate in, the dissonance.
It is a popular notion that Christmas is essentially the birthday of Jesus (or at least the celebration of the birthday of Jesus; reasonable people disagree about the exact date). Christmas is generally thought of as a birthday party, and all that leads up to it is part of the celebration. Christmas is a celebration of the birthday of Jesus… and it is so much more.
More than mere prelims to a birthday celebration, Advent prepares us again for the coming of Immanuel. It starts with that powerful name: Immanuel (which means “God with us”). We need go no further to find dissonance. God with us. The holiness of God in the midst of the lowliness of us. The Creator in all His Majesty coming in the way a mere human would normally come… a poor human at that. Just the name Immanuel, when more fully apprehended, should create dissonance in our minds and hearts.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
While the original Latin text was likely penned around the year 800, the words reminisce the generations prior to the first Advent of Jesus, yet after the clear promise of his coming by Isaiah… so the 600 years or so before the birth of Jesus. For us, Christmas is history; but for the faithful before the birth of Christ, it was only a promise, a promise longed for… and that longing is conveyed well by the slow tempo and minor tone of O Come Emmanuel.
Advent presents us the opportunity to embrace that same kind of longing. We need ransom. While our salvation is sure and our eternity secure, we are in lonely exile here; we are in the world, yet not of it (when at our best) and we are often of the world too. And there is dissonance.
We need the Son of God to appear. We need His presence. We make too little room when what Emmanuel demands and deserves is everything… every space and all our ways.
We rejoice. We know the Promise is true. We have more than just the Promise, we have history, and testimony, experience, and faith. We rejoice because we know that our longing will be satisfied, and Emmanuel shall come, has come, does come.
I’m very much in favor of happy songs at Christmas (even the festive songs that celebrate the season without acknowledging Christ). And I’m in favor of embracing the dissonance in a carol like O Come Emmanuel.
You can hear a version of the carol we did several years ago with our choir by clicking here.