Each year around this time, I find myself remarking to my congregation that the songs of Advent and Christmas give us some of our best theology. I’m sure they’re getting weary of hearing it by now. In my meagre defense, after a while one runs out of new things to say. At any rate, it’s no less true for my repeating it endlessly. Aside from just being a delight to sing, these songs give us marvelous lines like:
- Oh, love beyond all telling, that led thee to embrace, in love, all love excelling, our lost and troubled race.
- Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
- Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today!
- Hail the incarnate deity; pleased with us in flesh to dwell; Jesus, our Immanuel!
- Son of God, Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
I could go on, but I’ll refrain. I will note in passing, however, that even as I was digging up these lines from my hymnal, I was struck by how many exclamation marks dot the songs of this season. The incarnation is nothing if not hyperbolic.
One of my tasks over the last few days has been to put together a PowerPoint presentation for our upcoming Christmas Eve service. It will be a simple candle-light service of lessons and carols where the lights will be left low. This makes for a lovely aesthetic, of course, but it’s hard to read a hymnal in the dark. So, to the screen the songs must go. And to the digital archives I must go to find song slides from Christmas Eves past.
One of the songs we’ll be singing on Christmas Eve is, O Come, O Come Immanuel. I dutifully retrieved a past set of slides and inserted them into the presentation. But one thing I’ve learned from past Christmas Eves is to double check the slides with the hymnal. Sometimes they don’t match and, well, who wants to ruin Christmas Eve with words that aren’t what people expect?! I noticed something interesting as I compared our PowerPoint presentation version of this song and the version in our church’s hymnal. The song has six verses, but we only sing four. And, as I wrote about a few years ago, I find it endlessly fascinating to pay attention to the things that we leave out, whether it’s in our songs or the Scripture readings the lectionary serves up or in the life of faith more generally.
In this case, these were the two verses left out:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
These are understandable omissions. First, there’s the pragmatic to consider. Six verses are a lot. Christmas Eve tends to be a night when many people have somewhere to be, and the service had better not be more than 45-60 minutes! Second, what’s all this clunky language about rods and keys and Jesses and Davids? Yes, we can dig around in our bibles and figure out that these terms refer to Jesus’ genetic lineage and the scope of his authority. This is all fine and good, but we’d much rather sing about the desire of all the nations, about the Dayspring coming to cheer our spirits, about envy, strife and quarrels ceasing and the whole earth being filled with heaven’s peace.
I suspect that we have our theological reasons for avoiding these two verses as well. Satan’s tyranny, the depths of hell, the grave, and the path to misery aren’t exactly warm Christmas Eve-y images, even if these verses proclaim their defeat. We don’t like to think of ourselves being tyrannized by Satan or threatened by hell. At best, these references can be reclaimed as metaphors for human brokenness and corrupted socio-politcal systems and structures. At worst, they are embarrassingly anthropomorphic theological relics that we are well rid of. At any rate, we have eggnog and sugar cookies to get to! Who wants all those ugly words ringing in their ears as they set out into the merry season?
I do, actually. I look at a world plagued with violence, greed, and inhumanity, of an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, not to mention, well, my own sin, and I long for tyrannical shackles to be broken, for the paths to misery to be closed, once and for all. I long for Mary’s Magnificat to be more than a wistful Scripture reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent but an accomplished reality. I long for the Rod of Jesse to save us from hell—whether the hells that we create for one another or the final judgment our deeds demand. I long for death’s icy grip to be loosened and heaven’s doors flung wide. I need Christmas to be more than an assemblage of warm pastoral images of a cherubic white baby Jesus with his placid parents pondering the wonder and holiness of it all. Christmas is wonderful and holy and I am grateful for all the warmth and hope that it delivers. But Christmas is also the conquest of sin, death, and the tyrannical enemy that frustrates the good, the true, and the beautiful at every turn. Thank God.
I don’t know if we’ll end up singing verses two and four of O Come, O Come Immanuel in four days. Rods and keys and Davids and Jesses really don’t roll off the tongue as easily as the more cherished Christmas strains. And six verses is rather a lot. But as the celebration of a baby in a manger steadily approaches, I find myself grateful for both conquest and the consolation of Christmas.
The image above was created by John August Swanson and is taken from the 2011-12 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is Christmas’s conqueror on his own early path of misery, fleeing the hell-on-earth of a murderous despot.