On a recent Sunday morning, I was the guest preacher at a church near my house. A handbell choir, donning Christmasy-red shirts and white gloves, opened the service with a rendition of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
I’ve loved this haunting Advent hymn since my childhood. The original version of the song was chanted by monks during the Christmas season in the 8th or 9th century. They were known as the “Great O Antiphons” — short musical statements that included a biblical title for Christ: Emmanuel, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring.
In the early 19th century, a scholarly Anglican priest named John Mason Neale was reading through an obscure book of Latin hymns and discovered these ancient Advent melodies. He translated them into English and gave the world one of the most cherished hymns of this season.
“Emmanuel” would be a child conceived by a virgin, prophesied by Isaiah in the mid-7th century BC. His name literally means, “God With Us,” and perfectly describes the person of Jesus. Indeed, quoting Isaiah, Matthew the Gospel writer penned that the birth of Christ fulfilled this ancient prophecy.
The Oxford professor and popular author, C.S. Lewis, wrote that the central miracle of Christianity is the Incarnation: “Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. . .”
In Miracles, Lewis compares the Incarnated Christ with a muscular diver who descends into a sparkling sea. Deeper and deeper he plummets, until the beautiful blue-green waters slowly turn murky. Finally he reaches the bottom, where there is slime and ooze and decay. When he re-emerges into the air and sunlight, his lungs almost bursting, he opens his hand, revealing the precious pearl for which he braved the treacherous ocean. The diver’s body has changed, his color now resembling the color of the deep, briny waters. The bottom of the ocean is the muck of sin, and the pearl that the “Christ-Diver” rescued is us – only by becoming one of us.
Here we have a dramatic picture of the lengths God would go for you and me:
He would abandon the glories of heaven.
He would put on human flesh and be carried in a woman’s womb.
He would be wrapped in rags and laid in a hay trough.
He would risk rejection and ridicule, his back scourged, people spitting in his face.
He would hang, naked, on a criminal’s cross, taking every sin of humanity into his body.
He would die a shameful death and be buried in a borrowed tomb.
That’s how far God would go for us. During this season, we celebrate the advent of a God who is not cold and distant, but One who plunged into the depths of sin and death and re-emerged with humanity in His scarred hands.
God is with us! He visited this planet in the flesh 2000 years ago and now, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, He is with us still.