Joy in the Longing: The Timeless Message of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

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Several years ago, I sat with a dear friend over coffee as she recounted her very beautiful but difficult story. She and her husband had tried for almost ten years to start a family; with no explanation as to why they could not conceive, she lived with a daily sense of longing for children to fill her home. As I sat across from her, her eyes welled with tears, clearly still wrought by the tender emotions.

After much prayer and consultation, the couple decided to adopt and not long after received a phone call that there was a little girl awaiting them in China. They boarded a plane a few days later and rejoiced as they held their long-awaited child. The day after meeting her, however, the couple was told by authorities that the adoption would not go through. “There was too much red tape,” she said as her tears now flowed steadily. But it’s what she said next that I will always remember: “I want children more than anything, but I want Jesus more.” She smiled through the tears as she described the many ways God had revealed Himself in the midst of her longing.

The season of Advent is marked by a similar sense of both longing and joy, and one of our frequently sung Advent hymns beautifully depicts these emotions through its rich lyrics and poignant melody. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was written in the 12th century as a medieval Latin hymn. Typically sung in monasteries, how did this tune make its way to our modern hymnals? Part of the reason for its endurance is attributed to John Mason Neale, an English minister who translated the anonymously written text into English in 1851. But I believe this hymn has remained a part of our repertoire mostly because of its moving message of longing and joy which remains just as relevant for modern worshippers today.

The Longing

The song begins with a mournful melody and the lyrics reflect the longing the Israelites had as they waited for a Messiah to come and save them:

O Come O Come Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the son of God appear

When we sing this hymn, we are putting ourselves in the shoes of a first century Jew who is longing to be free from exile, free from oppression, and free from suffering. Isaiah prophesied: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). When Jesus came to earth the first time, He was to be the ransom paid to set Israel free not just from human captivity but from their sin and brokenness. Immanuel was the ultimate deliverer they had so longed to see.

Here we are, two centuries later, not needing to stretch our imaginations too much to understand what that longing would have been like. As parents we feel this acute sense of longing when we see firsthand the brokenness around us. It’s evident in our own hearts when we’re impatient with our child’s emotions or when we make decisions for our kids out of our insecurities. We see the brokenness in our teens who are not prone to lean into faithful advice and who often give way to grave temptation. And brokenness is prominent in our culture, making it considerably difficult to teach that confidence comes from being in Christ when social media sucks them in and creates self-doubt.

At times, it all seems too much. Like my friend who earnestly desired children, all of the strain of this life leaves us thirsty for joyful restoration. Believer, this is what Jesus promises!  He promises that He will come again and relieve our world from its bondage to sin once and for all. When we know this is our future, our hearts cry: O come! O come, Lord Jesus! Come, our Savior, and make all things new again.

The temptation is to hide these longings from your child, but that’s not always helpful. It’s OK at times for them to see our weariness from the brokenness. We can’t begin to really long for the second coming of Jesus until we begin to see that the world is not as it should be. And we won’t become truly excited about what is to come until we first learn to lament our pervasive sin. We’re not meant to feel completely at home in the midst of the brokenness, and it’s important our children understand this as well.

Rejoicing Accompanies the Longing

There will be a day when our King will “bring an end to all our suffering,” as the hymn anticipates. This is not a myth or a fantasy, but it is our future reality as believers in Christ. Because of this, our longing is never devoid of joy. Dear parent, as much as you talk about what is not good in our world, open your child’s eyes to the all-consuming joy that we have because of Christ, just as my friend did for me as she revealed her very personal story. Jesus came to earth to die for our sins, He rose again defeating death, and He reigns as King over all creation. Rejoice! Rejoice! The chorus culminates into this emphatic sense of joy that accompanies the longing:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

About a year after their failed adoption, my dear friends received a call from the adoption agency explaining that there was a preemie boy born that evening. Because of his fragile state, the original adoptive parents declined him. Our friends brought this precious boy home and after so many years of pain, this baby brought immense joy into their lives. And then one year later, my sweet friend conceived and eventually gave birth to healthy boy. When I see their family Christmas card each year with these two growing boys, it’s my friend’s smile that stands out. Her joy is filled to overflowing. It’s this kind of joy we will experience when Christ returns. Joy after the longing – joy filled to overflowing.

Ask your teens to tell you about the best gift they could imagine, and then share with them the amazing reality that the greatest present imaginable does not compare with what is in store for God’s children when He comes back and makes all things new again: free from sin, free from pandemics, free from tears and disappointments. This is our future; this is the reason that our longings are never devoid of joy.

John Piper says of this hymn, “With every verse, the refrain reaches down musically into our weak hearts and pulls us up, in faith, to see the certainty of the end” [1] Take the time to talk with your family about the significance of the hymns timeless message. And when you sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel this Christmas, sing it with longing, sing it with joy, and sing it with gratitude to our God who is with us and has given us eternal hope in Him.

[1] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/o-come-o-come-emmanuel

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