True Hope

The story of O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of relentless hope. The song began life inspired by the Babylonian Exile, became a monastic funeral dirge, and was translated by an exiled Anglican priest. It is one of the most famous Advent hymns ever.

Ace Collins tells in his book Stories Behind the Best Love Songs of Christmas that in its original form, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was known as a song of the Great Antiphons. The initial Latin text, framed in the original seven verses, represented the different biblical views of the Messiah. One verse per day was sung or chanted during the last seven days before Christmas.[1]

In antiphonal singing, the verses are sung alternately by soloist and choir, or by choir and congregation. The seven songs were the Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex Gentium, and Emmanuel.[2] Andrew Grant, in his book The Carols of Christmas writes that “Somebody noticed the initial letters of these key words, if read in reverse order, spell the Latin phrase, Ero Cras, and claimed that this meant, ‘Tomorrow, I will come,”… but it more accurately means, ‘Tomorrow I will be.’ Which is at best rather vague… More likely, some clever monk in the Middle Ages noticed the coincidence one bored day at Vespers and set that particular hare running.”[3]

The monks gave us this haunting, minor key melody. It’s muted. Even when we sing, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel” it’s not a full blast. This song has weight. It is sung from the point of view of folks feeling the weight of oppression. It feels heavy. It feels like Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is one of the longest books in the Bible, surpassed by only the book of Psalms.[4] I think of Jeremiah as the performance artist prophet. He’s full of anguish at the call God has given him. Full of lament of how the people have strayed from God’s ways. He’s warning them to repent only to have the Babylonian Exile happen.

There are moments of great anger in Jeremiah. Moments where he threatens Israel. Moments where he speaks of the division within his society that will only lead to its downfall. “Beware of your friends, do not trust your bothers for every brother is a deceiver and every friend a slanderer.” (Jeremiah 9:4)

Jeremiah speaks in valleys and hills. Things are worse than they’ve ever been. Just when you think we’ve hit rock bottom, Jeremiah pushes us into a pit. Yet there are moments of transcendence. Like the promise we have heard today.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Yes, you are in exile. Yes, the mighty temple you have built has been thrown down, the great tree has been cut down… but out of the stump of Jesse, a righteous branch will spring up for David. Justice and righteousness shall come back to the land.

That is the promise. And we hear it in the first and second verses: “And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here” then in the second verse, “Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”

Like Jeremiah, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is minor key liberation. Freedom with weight. Rejoicing without ignoring the pain.

That’s what true hope does. Hope does not ignore the pain or deny what has happened. Jeremiah takes on the false prophets of his day that peddle easy answers and only deal in comfort with no challenge. The Biblical prophets, including Jeremiah, do the opposite. They challenge and comfort. They don’t provide easy answers. There is a call to change and do the hard work of living in the hope of God’s promise.

The song takes its cue from Jeremiah and the prophets. Yet it owes its worldwide acceptance to a man named John Mason Neale. He was a brilliant Anglican priest who was educated at Trinity College in Cambridge and could write and speak twenty languages. Twenty! I have like ¾ of English and this guy has 20!

Yet many feared Mason Neale’s intelligence and insight. At the time, church leaders thought he was too forward, too progressive, and too much a free-thinker. Rather then give him a pastorate where he could influence the masses, the powers that be sent him to the Madiera Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.

From this place he started the Sisterhood of St. Margaret. From this order he began an orphanage, a school for girls, and a house of refuge for prostitutes. And this was just the beginning.

He came across an ancient Psalter and rediscovered O Come, O Come Emmanuel. He translated the work from Latin into English and that’s how we know the song today.[5]

That is how a medieval song based on Jeremiah’s exile was rediscovered by a priest in exile and gives us hope today.

I am reminded through this story and our scriptures today, that hope isn’t always bright and shiny. It does not always sound like a pop song. Sometimes hope is weighty, and gritty, and in a minor key.

I think of Maya Angelou’s poem The Caged Bird. How she puts words to the hope of black folk into word and image.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

Hope looks like a stump. Hope looks like a caged bird. Hope looks like signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding.

In times of chaos and people losing their righteous minds, there have always been good people who stand up and raise their heads and sing. They name the present circumstance and they don’t back down or provide hollow words. They risk their lives speaking real hope by naming the present trouble.

So many figures have risen in times of trouble and provided a vision, a hope, and sang of things unknown but longed for still. Heaven and nature are singing out this song!

Barb Michal told me this past week that her Thanksgiving cactus is in bloom. “It was in the garage for a couple of weeks with no water or sun and started developing blooms. In its suffering, it bloomed.”

True hope blooms in suffering, not enough sun, and a lack. True hope blossoms not when everything is going well, but when things are dire. Exile. Division. Strife. Even a mugging.

Julio Diaz was on his way to his favorite diner in the Bronx from work when a teenager with a knife wanted his money, so Diaz gave him the wallet and told him “Here you go.”

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” He asked Daiz, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.” Diaz said afterward, “You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,”

Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.”The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi, and the teen was surprised. ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. The teen replied ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says. The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”

The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.” Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”[6]

In our scriptures, in the ancient song, we are reminded once again that our hope of God’s coming kingdom is not simply spiritual, interior, and personal. It is gritty, tangible, life-enhancing, socially sustaining, and enjoyable. Out of the most desperate of circumstances, true hope blossoms and comes into being.

How will you translate your hope? How will you sing out your longing for the world? Sometimes we don’t think we can sing because we’d name our pain. People wouldn’t understand the mess or the contradiction or why it’s in a minor key.

Just remember this song and the story behind it. An ancient monastic hymn based on exile, rediscovered by a priest in exile, has shaped us today. A minor key hymn of real hope that treats thieves to dinner. Founds orphanages and places of refuge for society’s outcasts. Hope that causes the caged bird to sing. Hope, that when it’s sung out, will cause the aggressors and oppressors to put their weapons down, and beat their swords into plowshares… or the very least their knives into silverware in a diner.

We viscerally understand these songs. May you add your song of true hope! Sing out! Let it be good news for our day. Amen.

Works Cited

[1][1] Page 134

[2][2] For more on the Great Antiphons, read this Baylor University text: The Great Antiphons:

[3][3] Page 4.

[4][4] Patrick D. Miller, The Book of Jeremiah, Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI. Page 555.

[5][5] This story comes from Ace Collins Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Zondervan, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2001.

[6][6] Garofalo, Michael. A Victim Treats His Mugger Right. Morning Edition.

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