The most popular advent hymn is probably “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  I wish we would sing it every Sunday in Advent, since it is only appropriate on those four Sundays.  There are as many as eight verses, depending on your tradition.  These verses are a compendium of metaphors, different images added one to another to try to convey the qualities and importance of the Awaited One, the savior and healer who is to come.

To emphasize this abundance I am numbering the themes, although they do not appear in all versions in the same order.

1.  In the first verse, also often sung at the end, Emmanual will ransom Israel, which mourns in lonely exile.  This echoes both the Exodus from Egypt and the return of the Israelites from Babylon.  It can also remind us, in our present time, that mourning feels like exile.

2.  Emmanuel is “Wisdom from on high.”  Wisdom is sometimes presented as an assistant to God.  Here Wisdom will teach us.

3.  Emmanuel is the mighty Lord who gave Israel the law.  He is thus the God who will judge all.

4. Emmanuel is the Branch (or Rod depending on the version) of Jesse.  Jesse is the father of David and therefore Emmanuel is in the line of Israelite kings.  This Branch will rescue people and “give them victory over the grave.”

5.  Some traditions also have a verse describing Emmanuel as the Root of Jesse’s tree.  This suggests that the Awaited One is in the lineage of David and at the same time was before David. (As described in one of Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees in the gospels.)

6.  As Key of David, Emmanuel opens the way to heaven and closes the path to misery. Though no door is mentioned, the image is of an actual key which can lock and unlock.

7.  Emmanuel is the Dayspring, which is to say the sun, which disperses the clouds of night.  This is in turn a metaphor for removing the dark shadow of death.

8.  As King of nations, Emmanuel will restore what is broken, bringing peace.

9.  This King is also called Cornerstone, the stone which binds a building into one.

The original combiner of these metaphors, back in the eleventh or twelfth century, knew the scriptures well.  All of these images circle around the hope for healing, for safety and for peace, that very human longing which is the underlying theme of Advent.

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