Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7: 14)
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord.
(Isaiah 11. 1 - 2)
I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (Isaiah 22: 22)
In Autumn 2008, David and I took a sabbatical from ministry in New Zealand. On Advent Sunday that year, I joined the RSCM choir for an Advent carol service in the RC Cathedral in Christchurch (also known as Christchurch Basilica). This was a bit of a culture shock. As I sang the familiar words of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, I was standing on the cathedral balcony in a summer dress, sweltering in temperatures over 90 degrees with hot sunshine still streaming through the windows at 7 pm. This was an apt introduction to an ‘upside-down’ Christmas, where the nights would not be dark and snow would not be falling, challenging most of my familiar and cherished perceptions of the season.
This same RC Cathedral was badly damaged in the earthquakes that affected Christchurch on 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011, rendering the building structurally unsafe. In fact, the balcony where the choir had been positioned completely collapsed. The building has finally been demolished during the past three months, ten years after the earthquakes, a sobering reminder that life can take very sudden and unexpected turns.
However, no matter what our circumstances, the carol, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ contains powerful words. These are based on the great Advent antiphons used at Vespers on the seven final days of Advent. Each antiphon, or Scriptural response, which is usually sung, begins ‘O’ and declares a name of Jesus: O Wisdom; O Lord of Might; O Root of Jesse; O Dayspring; O Key of David; O King of the Nations; O Emmanuel (God with us). And there is power in the name of Jesus. Each one also refers to the prophecy of Isaiah.
These words come to life with fresh poignancy this year, as we consider our own lonely exile during lockdown and now in Tier 2 Covid restrictions. We see the tyranny of selfishness alongside the fear of death. The gloomy clouds and dark shadows of isolation and separation from friends and family are affecting people’s mental health. Yet the promise of the final verse encourages us to look to Jesus, the Key of David, who will ‘make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery.’
Why not read through the words of this carol again. Take your time and savour each verse, and then give thanks to God. ‘Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.’
Lord, thank you for sending Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. May we recognise his presence among us in new ways this Christmas. Amen.
'O come, O come, Emmanuel' sung by a New Zealand Choir