Princeton University Religious Life

“O Come, Desire of Nations”

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 14, 2008
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”  It was sometime in the late 400’s or early 500’s of the Common era when these lines were first written down. Marauding tribes were sacking what was left of Roman civilization. The period we call the “Dark Ages” was beginning. The great libraries of Europe were on fire. The administration of Rome may not have been gentle or even just but it imposed order, and as it sank under the waves of flame and of axe it took with it texts and histories and liturgies. Into ash crumbled histories of human and of Christian striving. In the midst of great destruction – perhaps the physical demolition of everything and everyone he knew – an educated man of faith wrote a prayer for deliverance.

It began, “O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi, . . . veni . . .,” (O Wisdom, from highest heaven. . . come . . .).   “O Emmanuel, . . . veni . . .,” was the last of its verses – “O Emmanuel, come.” Many of our churches still use this text, calling them the “O Antiphons,” for each verse begins with the supplication, “O”. They are traditionally appointed to be said on December 17 and on towards the Feast of the Incarnation. In many of our churches this prayer lives most vibrantly in our singing of the carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Some wonder if the author of this prayer for deliverance was among the 50 people “in lonely exile” who managed to escape the Huns, Barbarians, and Vandals who were vandalizing Europe setting all centers of learning aflame. They escaped to Ireland, in 550, the only place still safe from the axe-wielding hordes. Thousands of souls followed them there, carrying all the texts they could salvage in the rampage. By that time it had been almost a century since Patrick, who was a British Roman citizen and well-to-do, had approached the lawless Irish tribes, baptized them, and taught them to read. Wild Ireland was civilized (and also Christian) Europe’s last hope.

The lines of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” have been sung and cherished in different times and places by Christians under siege and exulting in triumph. “ ‘O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel’ (O Lord and head of the house of Israel), a handful of monks chant in the damp, dark cold of December 18, 563, in a tiny, windowless chapel on a lonely island called Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Unseen men with painted bodies gather outside to listen.” They are the native inhabitants who roam that wild land. “The monks have left Ireland to bring Christ and books to them. Under Columba, the ‘Man of Iron,’ the mission succeeds beyond belief. Within 30 years, the highlands and lowlands of Scotland are dotted with at least 100 ‘missionary colleges.’ Later, Lindisfarne was established in England’s east coast by a disciple of Columba, Aidan. The purpose of this ‘Holy Isle’ was to educate and baptize the pagan Angles.” (Gray)

Fast forward to the year 793 - right there in Lindisfarne. It is now a mighty center of learning. Imagine a monk in the scriptorium, the great hall for reading and transcribing, so long before the printing press. Was that monk putting quill to page writing, “O Come, thou Dayspring, from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh”? Was he in the very midst of writing these words when axes and screams overwhelmed his world? The raids of the Vikings had commenced.

For the next 150 years these men clad in bearskins (Berserks) would strike and pillage with sudden and other-worldly frenzy. “After splitting tonsured heads, they pillaged monasteries and churches and then the libraries along the coast of Ireland and Scotland (demolishing Iona), Wales and England. As the monks rebuilt, the Vikings returned. By 842 they had demolished every Saxon church within a day’s ride of the sea. By now they were sailing up the rivers of France, ravaging the land and taking the timbers from the beautiful church of St. Denis to rebuild their long boats.”

Centuries pass, and in Europe Christians are fighting Christians. Do both Catholics and Protestants say this poem, sing this hymn, when they are besieged? When the denomination of the region’s ruler meant all, and people were therefore honored or scourged because of their own denominational identity, were people who’d been pitted against one another not singing this same prayer for deliverance?

And to whom did missionaries not sing this prayer? Did African slaves learn it upon their forced arrival here? What did they know of being a “ransom captive”? How did they sing their hearts out in the words and tune taught to them by their master, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  Fast forward to this nation’s bloody civil war. Union and Confederate, did soldiers each in their encampment sing this prayer for deliverance? Move forward again and imagine Axis and Allied soldiers in France, Germany, Poland. With their guns aimed at each other’s hearts, did they each sing “O Come, desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind, bid envy, strife and sorrow cease, fill the whole world with heaven’s peace”? Did they sing their prayer for deliverance – each side – from the monstrosity of war, of being given a gun and sent off to kill other people? O Come, O Come, King of Peace. We need you right away.

Are soldiers today singing these words, as they gather with their chaplains in Baghdad and Kabul, Baquba and Kandahar for Sunday Services? Do they pray to be delivered from fear, saved from death? “O Come, thou dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine Advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” Are the Christians of Mumbai gathering together in their churches and homes today? In the wake of terror do they say, “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.” And do they then go out into their streets looking for that path of wisdom in the midst of the dried blood? A powerful bomb went off this week in Kirkuk. Its Kurdish residents are Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Do those Christians gather today to sing our plaintive hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”? Do the Christians I have met from Myanmar do so? The military junta that runs their country is brutal, but with some restrictions it permits them to practice their faith. Do they get together and sing “O Come, O please come”?

Christ will come to us again on Christmas, but all will not become magically better. We will still be at war in several places, bombs will blow up the innocent, dictators will abuse human rights. We believe, as did the first Christians, that Christ will come again one day, and on that day God will be all in all. Then we truly will be delivered from all that is evil or cruel or false. It was only about 400 years ago that the hoping, joyful refrain was added to the prayer: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”  There is no counterpart for this anywhere in the Latin text. We pray and sing of death’s dark shadows, and then we testify to the hope of our faith: Christ is coming to us again. Scholars do not know the time when the entirety of this prayer, including its call to hope, was set to the haunting and plaintive Middle Eastern melody we now know so well.

Christmas will come in ten days’ time, but our own hard work will continue. Our passage for this morning from Isaiah is about just this. The people had suffered in exile for generations. At last Babylon is overthrown and they can migrate back to their beloved home. But when they get there, to the place of their yearning and pining, it is not what they had expected. Their hopes and assumptions are dashed. They are those who “mourn in Zion;” they will “build up the ancient ruins”, they must “repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” While in exile they had developed some big ideas about how wonderful life would be when they finally got back home. They have a lot of hard work to do, but Isaiah tells them to rejoice, for God will sustain them through it all with everything they need to thrive.

God does the same today for us. As we await the advent of Christ we dare to name the ransom captives, the gloomy clouds, and death’s dark shadows. We sing our prayer for deliverance from all of this, and as we do we connect ourselves to all those who have said this prayer before us. We are part of an unbroken line of people who wait faithfully as they do the hard work of ending violence and suffering. We are connected to those 50 lonely exiles landing on the wild coast of Ireland with all the texts they could carry. We are connected to the monks and the Israelites who rebuild after devastations. We are connected to the slaves, the soldiers, the residents of shattered cities, the citizens of countries where it is night. With them, we sing our prayer for deliverance and we sing out our hope: “O come, Desire of Nation’s, bind all people in one heart and mind. Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”




Mary Z. Gray, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 4.

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