The Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” carries a haunting melody– a yearning, mournful tune that seems to strain out of its notes, leaning towards resolution. However, the gloomy musical dirge is strongly contrasted by the song’s lyrics, and in particular, its chorus:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Have you ever noticed how those lyrics don’t seem to match the melody? “Rejoice!” we sing… in a somber, minor key. It’s an intellectually and musically jarring experience… which is exactly the point.
The mismatched music and lyrics of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is song’s primary message. In this lonely darkness between the two advents of the King, all our joy is in a minor key. Paul called it “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), the off-balance existence of exiled royalty. We have been ransomed, but not yet rescued. We have been adopted as children of the King, but we join all creation in “longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” Emmanuel has come, but we ache for the day when he will be Emmanuel again, when “God will dwell with his people.” We are children of the day, looking for the dawn while languishing in this seemingly endless night. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
Joy in a minor key: perhaps no phrase so succinctly captures the experience of the Christian life. We live in a strange tension of partial fulfillment, having received the downpayment but still waiting on our inheritance. We “have nothing, yet possess everything;” we are homeless in this world, yet the deed to the universe has our names on it. John Newton once wrote, “I feel like a man who has no money, but is allowed to draw from one infinitely rich. I am at once both a beggar and rich man.” Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
The Christian life is lived in the bleak midwinter of a frozen, fallen world. But like Christmas lights twinkling in the darkness, we are heralds of a coming change. Winter is thawing, restoration is budding, Aslan is on the move. We’re leaning forward with all creation, anticipating the spring that even now is stirring in our souls. Like flowers blooming in a parking lot, the new creation is pushing its way up through the concrete of our world and our hearts. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
“Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Romans 13:11-12). So we lift our eyes to see our salvation drawing nearer every day. We glow in the dark, we sing through our tears, we love amidst pain, we grab ahold of the moral arc of the universe and bend it with all our might towards justice. And we wait– with eager longing and groaning joy– for our long-awaited rescue to light up the skies and make everything new. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. So, even as you mourn in lonely exile: rejoice!