Advent Devotional: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.


O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.


O come, Desire of nations, bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife, and discord cease;

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.


(Listen to my current favorite rendition of the song here:

 Why do I start here?  Well because it is my favorite Advent song.  The song resonates with – when I hear it I cannot help but stop and listen.  Of course there are artists capable of killing the song as they try to make it “theirs” or “new.”  Some things need no unique creative flair and for me this is one of them. 

 As I read the lyrics, as the music pours over me – I feel the hope.  Almost the hope of hope really.  The song reminds me that hope doesn’t mean all is well.  Hope doesn’t mean we are even on the right path.  Hope is the sense that words like right and well and peace and wholeness are out there, they are possibilities even when the stories around us all speak differently.  To quote Hebrews 11, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

 The mournfulness of Emmanuel doesn’t gloss over the harshness of our world, but the yearning of the song also doesn’t downplay the sure and certain hope of God-with-us, light that puts dark to flight, and peace for all creation.  This song more than any other, for me, captures the in-between-ness, the caught between hurt and healing, despair and hope, waiting for and seeing in our midst God’s Kingdom.

 When the world is dark and quiet and I listen to these words… “O come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear…” …and I cry… and the tears themselves are as healing as the waters of baptism. 

I invite you to listen to the song again, or to a version more to your liking.  And join the generations that weep for loss, and long for hope, and KNOW despite all evidence to the contrary that the realization of that hope is not in doubt.

About Andrew Kukla

I am the proud father of four wonderful children, loving husband to Caroline, brother to three mostly wonderful sisters, and son of two parents that gifted me with a foundation of love and freedom. I also am a Presbyterian pastor and former philosophy major with a love of too many words (written with many grammatical errors and parenthetic thoughts), Soren Kierkegaard, and reflections on living a life of discipleship that is open to all the challenges, ups and downs, brokenness and grace, of a chaotic and wonderful life founded upon the love of God for all of creation.

Posted on December 3, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I wonder if you’ve ever thought of this song as supersessionist. I came to LPTS loving this advent hymn. I still do, and I long to sing it and hear hope. Instead, what I hear now is the condescension Christians have for Jews. They don’t accept Christ you see, even though he ransomed them, so they are doomed to live in exile from God. Poor captives.

    I hope I haven’t ruined a good song for you. I hope that you can tell me how my reading of that first verse is incorrect. I’d love to love this song again.

    • I have not thought of this song as supersessionist – I have thought about Christianity as supersessionist. It is really hard to be Christian and not be supersessionist and depending on how you use the word and exactly what practice it describes I’m not even sure it should be a problem.

      I have no unique claim to how to interpret scripture. If what supersessionist means is that I’m not allowed to interpret the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures in the light of Christ than I have a serious problem with that. If supersessionist means that I won’t let anyone else interpret it from a perspective other than HOW I UNDERSTAND Christ… than I have a problem with that as well. But we go to the texts as followers of Christ and that means that many of the promises of Jewish Scriptures set the epidemiological foundation for us to understand Christ as the fulfillment of God’s hope and promise for us. If I do not do so… than I’m clearly a very confused theologian. I do so, personally, while granting that others may do so differently than I and both may be completely legitimate.

      Interesting the song doesn’t ever say Jesus. It certainly doesn’t say they are doomed to live in exile because they didn’t believe – that was you. You chose to add that to the song so the question is what is that makes you want this song to read in such a light?

      The song make no explicit claim on how the hope is even realized except to say that God-with-us will happen. In what light is that an objectionable claim? Do you not believe God will fulfill hope and promise and live among us? Do you believe Jews do not believe that? (Yes as we sing it in Advent we create the association, but then I guess the claim you are really making is that we are not allowed to use the Old Testment or names like Israel and Jerusalem… a very strange argument to make) I could imagine (as a non-Jew admittedly) that just as they read Isaiah as prophesying about a different Messiah than I do (Jesus, though I read that with the ambiguity of knowing that for Jews that is not who these texts speak about)… they could hear O come O come Emmanuel as speaking of the fruition of hope in another messiah.

      The songs claims are two-fold. We live in exile and darkness. IS this not true?

      That we can rejoice even in the midst of our exile at the shall-be-fulfilled hope of God-with-us. Is this also not true?

      Jews, Christians, and Muslims (not to mention even more faith traditions but those are the main three) share stories. Our stories overlap and we each grant them differing authorities and differing fulfillments. To decide one tradition has claim of those stories to the exclusion of the other others… that is supersessionism. I do not see that claim here.

  2. Supersessionism to me is taking over someone’s scripture and beliefs, interpreting them differently and then telling them that you are right and they are wrong; that your interpretation holds meaning and theirs does not. Please interpret the Old Testament with Christ in mind. I do, you do, and I do not know how we could NOT do that, but please remember also that maybe their interpretation is just as right as yours and mine.
    I find it interesting that you say the song doesn’t say Jesus. That is true. However, in this season of preparation for an advent of God-with-us I feel more than certain that Jesus is alluded to in many not so subtle ways. Who else do we refer to as the Son of God?
    As for what makes ME want to add something I find repulsive to the song I respectfully disagree with you. I think the song does say that Israel is mourning in a lonely exile until God’s Son appears to ransom them. Is that hope? Well, maybe. For you and I certainly Emmanuel is good news, but if Jesus is NOT the messiah as our Jewish friends say, then aren’t they left in that exile until God’s Son does appear?
    You say that I am making the claim that we cannot use the Old Testament or the words Israel or Jerusalem. I am making no such claim and I wonder what it is in you that makes you hear my objection that way. The difference I think is that Christians are claiming that in Jesus we no longer live in exile and darkness but that Jews do because we have it right and they do not.
    The understanding that we can rejoice even in the midst of our exile at the shall-be-fulfilled hope of God-with-us (your words) is absolutely true. Without that hope we’d be lost as we live in the already/not-yet-ness of God’s kin-dom.
    As for redeeming this song for me, you could try. It is a cop out to say that is between God and I. I’m pretty sure this is an insignificant issue in the grand scheme of things. However, I (apparently) was thirsty for a discussion about it with someone who isn’t living the culture of LPTS. Sorry if I made you more than a little defensive. I figured you were a safe person to push against (and I still do.)

  3. Let me go back and see how I poorly conversed the first time. From your response its clear that my first point is right in line with yours – we both agree on our understanding of supersessionism (I dont’ think that is a given which is the problematic nature of words… many people have many notions of where the line of supersessionism lies.)

    I did freely acknowledge that when we sing it at Advent we make that association. Doesn’t change the fact that the song itself is not very particular about naming the nature of the hope. (After all Daniel is all about the messianic figure of the Son of Man and I’m not sure I see that as much different from the Son of God language.) It doesn’t say we have any role in the “freeing from exile” part so I’m uncertain where you think it implies Jews are still languishing in exile. That part (for me) is you reading into something that isn’t there. I dont’ here this claiming exile and salvation for only parts of creation. So I guess there we will continue to respectfully disagree.

    I think we are all still in exile… so maybe we’ll still respectfully disagree on that as well. I don’t think of Christians as having any unique un-exiled status nor does I think anything about this song promotes that idea as well. I DO think that idea is very alive and rampant in our world… but not here. This is what I was reacting to – that I feel you are naming a true problem but you created it out of nothing with this song. That ire came from you not the song. The song for me sits so authentically in the world of Isaiah that the idea of it as supersessionist doesn’t really cross my mind. That said – Christians are really supersessionist with regards to Isaiah. This is one of those nerves you may have touched. I find it hilarious that I will hear people critique the use of Isaiah in Advent… but then they keep doing it. If you don’t think its speaking about Jesus – don’t use it. But don’t have condescension of the “average” person’s understanding of Isaiah as prophecying Jesus if we keep fostering that notion in our own liturgy.

    Now let me be clear… you didn’t do that. I have seen that done quite a bit and that is a nerve for me and so maybe some of my response about supersessionism has an underserved edge because of hitting that nerve. I love Isaiah. I think it is essential reading for understanding Jesus in his own time. I also think that is holds very different meaning for a Jewish reader and I wish to honor that while acknowledging that my tradition reads that Christologically. I think those two (way more than two) readings can co-exist fruitfully. That is my bias and in your response I don’t see you having that agility… maybe you do. My bad for letting that nerve edge my response.

    As I look at your response again I’m aware of a fundamental different in how we hear the song. I hear the song AS Israel… you hear the song making a claim about Israel as something separate from Christians. It is as if you hear this about second advent… and I’m hearing it about the first.. when we were a part of Israel… for Jesus was a Jew who came to Jews… and like the song – his ministry widens as it goes. So when the first verse sings about Israel needing ransom.. I sing that as one who is a part of Israel… existing in exile… hoping for God-with-me/us.

    Yah I don’t hear that Christian not in exile argument… I don’t hear it in my life and theology and so I don’t hear it in this song. So I guess the shoe is on the other foot… how do you hear that in this song? What experience are you speaking from that makes you think this text which talks about the whole world being bound together in peace is actually trying to say we Christians are right and you Jews are wrong?

    I will have to explain the redeeming comment later… but your pulling in a separate previously private conversation to this forum – which is fine for me but my kids are freaking out over bed time so its time for me to go create some healthy exile. 🙂

    (that also means I’m going to post this unedited without reading through it again and I apologize but I’d rather keep the conversation going then worry about being articulate).

  4. Okay one thing I didn’t address and its a place where I was confusing… I put in a paranthetical comment in the wrong place (HOW DID I DO THAT?) and so when I said, “(Yes as we sing it in Advent we create the association, but then I guess the claim you are really making is that we are not allowed to use the Old Testament or names like Israel and Jerusalem… a very strange argument to make)”

    I meant that to follow my comment about not naming Jesus. I realize you feel I took your argument to far. Maybe I did… but as I heard you what I heard you saying is that we can’t use the cries of Jewish prophets to talk about Jesus. I hear “ransom captive Israel” as being those cries. Exile is the predominate language of scripture. Whether its slaves in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, or Babylonian/Persian/Greek/Roman rule… most of the germinative power of our scriptures comes from times of exile in which we are crying for ransom (salvation/freedom/anyone at all to hear our cries) from our God. To disallow that we might see that as coming in Jesus (which again is what I hear you saying – I realize that you don’t think you are saying that… but I actually still hear you as saying that) is very problematic for me. Its as if you were saying we aren’t allowed to tred the Old Testement (Hebrew Scriptures) they are someone else’s book.

    Now… I realize the problem is maybe two fold. YOu don’t share my reading of this as echoing the cries of Jewish prophets and exiled peoples (maybe you don’t – you’d have to confirm or deny that for me)… and you don’t read us as being a part of Israel at least so far as the thematic concept of Israel is concerned obviously we aren’t a part of the current nation-state (your stance on Israel is naming the Jews as “wrong” is quite clear and is the real break for you and I in this song). So given we don’t share those premise(s) than it maybe is natural that we end up in very different places with regards to our appreciation for the songs message.

    Okay I think maybe this is a little more clear – I really need to wait till life gives you the chance to chime in.

    Oh and as for the redemption part – it wasn’t a cop out otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered responding. But your right.. we don’t have to redeem our view a song. Its simply a tool and if the tool doesn’t work for you toss it out (I should go back to the beginning and point out the song is inconsequential… but it leads to a conversation of consequence so I’m glad you brought it up). Disagreement helps us in the journey from settled thoughts to disturbed and reformed thoughts.The wrestling over the supersessionism conversation helps me with a particular thought I’ve wrestled with for long time and hopefully will forever. Thank you for keeping this conversation going.

  5. Where to start?
    First, despite the fact that the song is coming from Isaiah, I never placed it in that context. I listen solely as a modern reader in a modern context. I do not think of the song as words of Isaiah 3000 years ago speaking to people then. I jumped right to the song speaking to me/us in our time.

    I did not come to my thoughts on the first verse by myself. Very early on in my time at LPTS I was in a class where this song was brought up and questioned. The OT scholar leading us felt very strongly that this song was offensive. A Jewish student in the class agreed with her. I disagreed and until this discussion didn’t even remember that conversation or realize the effect it has had on me. Obviously, somewhere along the line I came to agree with them. Now, removed in time from that class I can see how it fits a pattern and theology of a particular person. I will think more about that – the question I guess, is do I agree or not. And, as you’ve said, it does involve (re)forming my own opinion of how I interpret scripture. I came here from a place of reading Jesus into the OT and have been trained to NEVER do so. I wonder where I will end up on that. I do think that with the benefit of hindsight, of course we see Isaiah pointing to Jesus. I do not think that his words would have been intended to point to something so far into the future nor do I think his original audience would have thought so either. That doesn’t make our reading wrong, and I love the use of Isaiah in Advent. I’m also cautious because in our quest for historically accurate info. we are not hearing the text as it was originally intended. Maybe I’m wrong, however, I do not think we are tied to only what the words originally intended to find our meaning – that would make them flat, boring, and obsolete. Thank you Holy Spirit.

    You hear us as Israel. I get that and I can see how it informs your reading of the song. It makes sense, and when I read the lyrics your way, they are beautiful.
    You say, “I don’t think of Christians as having any unique un-exiled status nor does I think anything about this song promotes that idea as well. I DO think that idea is very alive and rampant in our world… but not here. This is what I was reacting to – that I feel you are naming a true problem but you created it out of nothing with this song.” I guess that when we acknowledge that this is a problem in our world, and I am forced to acknowledge that people I respect do read that in this song, then it isn’t such a far leap to say that even if I don’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. To use an example you’ve heard something about, just because some people with white skin in Boise, Idaho say that racism doesn’t exist, does not make that true.
    I could be taking that argument too far. Just because some representative voices find this song offensive does not mean that I need to as well. I could back myself into a corner and never be able to speak, sing, or do anything for fear of offending others. However, I can now see both sides of the coin. I wonder what I will do with that. Incidentally, your comment about me not being agile enough to hold two views in tension is offensive. I do not think you meant it that way but it is how it reads.
    On a slightly different track, I’m curious about Christians (and everyone?) being in exile. What is exile? Is it separation from God? What was the work of Christ? How does reconciliation work? If we are in exile, why did Christ come? Do we have to wait for the second coming for our exile to end? (These questions stem from your comment but are maybe leading me down a rabbit hole. If and when you respond, know that even asking these is making me anxious. It is safer to hide in silence and figure out what I think before emerging with my own “right” answer. Yeah, it doesn’t work, but no sharp edges when answering this part. OK?)
    Now, I have spent too much time writing to you and NOT working on the Christ Hymn from Colossians. So now for me it is back to working for a grade instead of for my own enjoyment and formation. I await your responses.

  6. You can NEVER read Jesus into the OT? I’m gonna rabbit trail on that for a moment.

    That seems sad to me. Is Jesus co-eternal or not? Do you believe Jesus to be God? Do you believe the world is created through Jesus as John’s Gospel says (always a mistake when we talk of creation stories as if only Genesis has them since John has one as well – thank you to Cindy Rigby at Austin for reminding me of that a couple years ago).

    A fair amount of the NT is reading Jesus into the OT so does that mean we have to cut those parts of the NT out because they participate in an act that we aren’t allowed to do? I understand the desire to honor another faith traditions use of those texts… I’m not trying to tell them what they should believe about them – but I want that courtesy extended to me as well. The OT promises are how early Christians made sense of Jesus. That is “reading him into the OT” whether we will allow it or not. The challenge ( I think, as named before) is how we read it that way while also allowing that it means something as as well (like Isaiah speaking of Hezekiah and such not but also being the fertile ground from which we understand Jesus as fulfilling messianic promise).

    Okay back to the larger conversation, I just deleted a bunch of response to keep this clearer… so some quick points to not get bogged down.

    We can not fear offense. We just have to tred with humility. I think you and I are right on the same page with that based on your “backed into a corner” conversation.

    Interesting that you will only allow yourself to hear this song as speaking to you today as modern listener. Would you do that with scripture? Why the double standard? (I’m presuming your answer to the first question… I could be wrong.)

    I conditioned my comment about not hearing you as agile with no less than two statements… that I was maybe wrong, and by apologizing for hearing you through my bias. I’m not certain how to couch that more respectfully and still get to claim my experience of your comment. My apologies for the unintended offense.

    So do you use the word evangelism?

    Yes that is cryptic. But does that fact that many many Christians use it with an abusive understanding mean that you have vacated ever using the word which is biblical in origin? I would hope not. I would think you need to do the work of reclaiming (you might say redeeming) the language. I think all things are open to interpretation and if I abdicate a text, scripture, song, reflection from my use simply because it is open to abuse and being heard in a harmful way… what am I left with? Did anything about my reflection on this song sound like thought it was making a soteriological argument against the Jews? So that someone else might means we cannot use it? I like John 14 when it speaks about Jesus as the way the truth and the life. It does not mean for me what it does for many Christians… but it doesn’t mean I stop using it. In fact it means it is even more important that we use it in a constructive way to be counter-testimony.

    I’m not sure of my next point but its the only way I could engage this thought and I’m “thinking on the fly” here. Is it racism that most churches are homogeneous? Some would say yes. Some would say no. Is First Pres Boise racist for being almost exclusively white, and am I a racist leader for leading it as such? Maybe. I’m not confident enough to say absolutely not. But nothing in how I intentionally (and that is an important caveat) lead intends to put forth that idea. In fact if someone asked I would clearly say not – but we are a church with a culture that may or may not appeal to someone who doesn’t feel a part of that culture. So we maybe slightly racist even while not directly contributing to and trying in small ways to erode that sense. Similarly may the song be supersessionist? Maybe. But I’d like to think it isn’t in how I am using and I use it because in my experience it gets me to the long waiting for “rescue” from God that I believe is authentic to Advent better than most (all?) other options out there.

    I’m not sure if that added anything other than to say. I cannot control how others use something. And I cannot control how others will perceive my practice. But I won’t let my fears of other people’s misuse/abuse from allowing me access to a meaningful text/song/practice. I will try to be clear in what I mean about the things I say and do. I will speak again what I see as harmful interpretations when I come across them but I cannot cease to use texts because of the possiblity of their misuse.

    Okay this is too much and I’m a bit lost. I will engage the final exile questions later because that is an AWESOME conversation.

  7. Two points of clarification and I think we can lay this conversation down in favor of the next one.
    – In “NEVER” allowing us to read Jesus into the OT I am speaking of my experience of a professor. Her ideas are probably not so black and white, but that was my definite take-away message from her classes. Those classes, however, are wrapped up in a web of my experiences of them (not positive) so I am anything but objective when I think of her and those classes. Af this point I feel like I need to be careful not to speak FOR her when I know I am speaking of her from my own slanted point of view. That said, I still think that is the message she taught and I am trying to find my own balance within my experience, her teaching, thoughts of others, and my own understandings.

    – This point will be a simple one to clear up. You said in response to me, “Interesting that you will only allow yourself to hear this song as speaking to you today as modern listener. Would you do that with scripture? Why the double standard? (I’m presuming your answer to the first question… I could be wrong.)” Your response tells me that I was not clear in articulating what I meant. My statement was not so much me saying that I would not allow myself to hear the song in any way other than as speaking to me as a modern listener as a confession that I hadn’t done so and should have. Including that was my way of saying, “My bad!” and acknowledging that I had failed to do something I should have done.

    I look forward to the exile discussion.

    • Well I’m glad to be done with it because I feel like I became an apologist for supersessionism and that makes me feel dirty.

      The professors point is good in so far as we remember to use scripture, which is not only our own, with care and respect. I just don’t want to go so far down that road that we lose the ability to do so at all, and that isn’t simply me exaggerating. Progressive Christians have a challenge for how to honor and respect (and seperate ourselves from Christians who have not and do not) other traditions. But we have to do so without checking Jesus as the door… Or we have lost our own identity.

      Your second point, and your original point is great and worth this conversation. We must exegete the world as well as scripture and this is particularly true of our music which teaches us all the time. I like to claim (not sure it’s true but don’t think it’s not true) that we are more formed in church by what we sing than what we read/hear because we don’t wear a critical hat with our lyrics we just soak them up. Thank you for the reminder to see all that is being said.

      I will return for the exile conversation but I’m typing in my phone while pretending its not time to feed and dress kids so it will have to wait for later. 🙂

      • You said something (humbly of course) about your brain being wired for theology and just getting it, at least, in seminary. Yeah, I can play the game too.  I feel like I don’t get it, but then I’m rather vocal about asking questions to help it make sense and my classmates tell me I must get it because they aren’t even able to form questions. Then I talk to you and am not sure I “get” anything, which is FUN. Thanks! Nik


  8. I did say such a thing and just to clarify “wired for it” doesn’t mean always right! I will passionately argue and sometimes I’m just off the mark. But I tend to think intelligence is not simply intelligence. My wife is brilliant but has no interest and mind for philosophy and theology (why is she married to me you might ask). And while I could try to learn all she knows in accounting and finance – it would take me longer and I’m convinced I just would never be as good as she is naturally at it. I started out as a Math major in college for similar reasons, math is another thing my mind is just wired for, I just got it. I found calculus easy because it was like I already really knew it. Which would be a great segue to Socrates’ understanding of learning but I’m not taking that rabbit trail.

    And to your final comments, the Rabbis would teach that when you are asked a question answering is easy, if you truly understand you know what the next good question is! So you get it – whatever it is! 🙂

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