Article of the week: Emmanuel shall come to thee

12 December 2020


Four people have chosen a carol to reflect on during Advent. Major Matt Spencer continues the series with ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’

ADVENT is a time of expectant waiting. Sometimes it can feel like waiting to open a present you’ve wrapped yourself. This year there’s a sense in which the heartfelt longing and desire for a better day is more tangible than in previous years.


O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.


‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ (Hymns Ancient and Modern version) has long been one of my favourite carols. Its words and music are a beautiful marriage of mournful lament and hope-filled expectation.

One of the highlights of my family’s Christmas for several years has been attending Westminster Abbey’s carol service where we’ve gathered with friends and strangers to sing songs and hear readings that place the birth of Christ in its biblical and historical context. Each year, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ features, its centuries-old melody and lyrics befitting the solemnity of the occasion.

This year, we won’t be able to gather at the abbey. Our traditions will be forced down different paths as we seek new ways of acknowledging the season’s significance, but the carol’s truths can nevertheless resonate in our hearts.


O come, thou Dayspring, from on high,

And cheer us by thy drawing nigh;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.


The first Christmas saw the literal drawing nigh of God-made-man, as Christ stepped into the neighbourhood of humanity and began his earthly life. Two millennia later, the plea for cheerful companionship sounds a new relevance as many find themselves isolated within the hostile confines of regulatory observance. Of course, we pray that God would enter the ‘bubble’ of those who feel this isolation most keenly but, as people indwelt by Christ, we must also seek creative ways of shining his light and bringing cheer as we draw nigh to others, in so far as we’re able. We may also play our part in dispersing the ‘gloomy clouds of night’ that so many are experiencing just now.


O come, thou Wisdom from on high,

And order all things, far and nigh;

To us the path of knowledge show,

And cause us in her ways to go.*


Perhaps this year more than ever, our prayer must be that those who lead our world would be guided by wisdom from on high. With so many conflicting agendas and opinions, we need to be led along the path of knowledge, rather than down dead-end roads of bombastic grandstanding, indecisive wavering or political manoeuvring. 


O come, desire of nations, bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;

Fill the whole world with Heaven’s peace.*


This year a light has shone on the scourge of racial injustice in our world. Even those who consciously oppose racist philosophies have had to face upto uncomfortable truths concerning their place within a world of structural and systemic racism. The prayer that God would ‘bind all peoples in one heart and mind’ and ‘fill the whole world with Heaven’s peace’ is particularly apt.

The all-surpassing peace of Christ is more than a soft-hued fairy-lit glow to enhance the comfort of the comfortable. It is a robust peace that, when sought and yielded to, is strong enough to unify those of us with experience of racism’s sharp end with those who know nothing of its sting, and who may even have wielded its blows.


Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee…


‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ evokes much more than mere sentimentality within us. It is a powerful prayer of appeal to the living God to be manifest in life’s many and varied challenges. It names our pain and weaknesses and cries out for the presence of Christ to be evident amid them. Above all, it expresses the hope that undergirds our faith, that in our suffering, fragility, failure and captivity we can rejoice because Christ has come, Christ is here and Christ shall come again.


*Additional verse in the American Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982





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