Meditations on Three Advent Hymns

The season of Advent is a 4-week period of time in the Christian church calendar leading up to Christmas Day. It traditionally begins on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It is a time of anticipation as we think on the many prophecies of the Messiah found in the Old Testament and how the Israelites watched for centuries for signs of the Messiah’s coming. It is commonly acknowledged in many church traditions with the lighting of the Advent Candles with each candle representing a specific emotion (love, joy, hope, peace) or a specific aspect of the story leading up to Jesus’ birth (Prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherd, Angel).

Many hymns that capture the essence of this time period have been composed and sung in churches all around the world for centuries. Here are three well-known and widely used Advent hymns in the church today:

Words: Latin Hymn (12th Cent.), translation by John M. Neale (1851)
Music: Thomas Helmore (1854), based on plainsong phrases

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.

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” (Matthew 1:22-23)

While Advent is a forward-looking time of anticipation, one cannot fully appreciate the joy of what is to come without remembering what has been. This is where we find ourselves entering into the story in the very first stanza of this hymn. While Israel was being held in the bondage of slavery and then exiled to the desert, their hearts remained fixed on the hope of the Messiah to come—when the Son of God, announced by the angel Gabriel to Mary, would be born thus fulfilling his title “Emmanuel”—God with us! The verses of this hymn begin in a minor key and resolve to its relative major key on the refrain “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

ADVENT MEDITATION: When have you felt alone, rejected, unwanted? Did you find yourself wishing and hoping for a way out? Recall those memories. Then hear the Lord say to you: “My child, I know how you ache and long to be rescued. I have come to do just that! Believe in Me and receive My salvation. I am Emmanuel—God with you!” Give thanks to Him for all that He has done in your life and pray for Him to reveal His love to you more and more each day. He loves you so much!

Words: Charles Wesley (1744)
Music: Rowland H. Prichard (c.1830)

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

Oddly enough, this is one of the few Advent hymns written in a major key! Charles Wesley, author of over 6,500 hymns, first published this hymn in 1744. But it wasn’t until 1830 that the current tune was married to the text. While the first stanza of the previous hymn focuses on the physical captivity of the Israelites, here we find the first stanza reminding us that captivity, or bondage, is often more of an emotional or psychological state. The coming Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, has the power to release us from our “fears and sins” so that we may experience the freedom He desires for us. Now isn’t that truly “Good News”?

ADVENT MEDITATION: Are you struggling with fear in your life? Or has some past sin weighed you down that you feel you can’t move out from under it? Pray to God now to release you from fear and sin, to unloose the shackles of bondage and release you into His loving arms of joy and peace. Repent—turn from sin and fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. He comes to you as one of his own: “I have lavished my great love on you by calling you my child, a child of God, and that is what you are” (1 John 3:1). Alleluia!

Words: Marcus Aurelius C. Prudentius (4th Cent.),
translation by John M. Neale (1854)
Music: Plainsong (c.13th Century)

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)

This 13th Century chant provides a haunting, timeless melody for such powerful words of the nature of God. While Advent is much about a time awaiting the Messiah, we remain grounded in the truth of who God is and that everything comes from Him—especially salvation! This hymn provides a foundation for our hope in Christ, that He is “Alpha and Omega . . . the source . . . evermore and evermore!”

Later in the final stanza we sing praises to our Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

Christ, to thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving and unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion, and eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!

The relationship of the Triune God with one another seems to be one that is immersed in love. Once while praying, Jesus said, “You (Father) loved me BEFORE the creation of the world” (John 17:24). The implication (assuming the Holy Spirit’s presence as well) is that the Triune God is an eternally loving community (communion), always “loving and being loved” and therefore “abide” in LOVE. John emphatically declares in his first letter: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). When God created humankind, he said, ‘Let US make mankind in OUR image, in OUR likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, we were designed to love and be loved and remain in the love of our Triune God always.

ADVENT MEDITATION: Give thanks to God for His amazing and unfailing love! Spend some time being loved by Him and loving Him back. Then ask God to lead you to someone to love as He has loved you. Rejoice in His delight over you and His desire to have you participate in His Kingdom work!

Have a blessed Advent and Christmas season…