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A Christmas hymn for sovereign Israel

Christians and Jews can see glimmers of the promised blessings to come, but cannot yet bask in their full brilliance

Christmas invites tension between Christians and Jews like few other holidays. Its focus on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel sets at center stage a defining difference between the religions. When the symbols of Christian celebration are drawn from the stock of Jewish scripture, is there any way to avoid a sense of poaching and violation? I would like to believe there is, and one iconic carol-prayer can help us find that way.

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Written in Latin in the ninth century, set to a haunting 15th-century French tune, and immortalized in the English translation of John Mason Neale in 1851, the hymn opens with this verse and the first of seven messianic images from biblical Israel’s prophets. Each verse invites the promised redeemer, “O come,” under one of those images: Immanuel (God-with-us), Wisdom, Lord of Might, Rod of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, Desire of the Nations. Each verse prays for the fruits of redemption in vivid imagery:

To us the path of knowledge show and teach us in her ways to go.
Cheer our spirits by your advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.
Make safe the way that leads on high.
Free your own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of Hell your people save and give them victory o’er the grave.

In sum, the hymn envisions God’s kingdom come, with all pain and suffering and exile redeemed.

In 1968, as a 13-year-old, first-time Lutheran pilgrim to the Holy Land, transfixed by shops full of olivewood manger scenes, I naively took each image to refer to Jesus. As it did for most Christians up to that time, the entire hymn pointed my faith toward the Christmas carved in those figures. There was the coming of the messiah, and there the fulfillment of all the hope it voiced so poignantly and eloquently.

(Watch a traditional version of this classic hymn.)

By the time I returned to Jerusalem as a 29-year-old graduate student of Bible and theology, I had given up my childish ways. Confident in my knowledge of Hebrew and history, I stood in Redeemer Church of Jerusalem’s Old City on Christmas Eve with cynicism and revisionist fervor. There are other phrases in the hymn that challenged the reality I had come to know. The opening prayer asks Immanuel to “ransom captive Israel.” How could we sing of “captive Israel” in that place, with a sovereign modern Jewish state outside the doors and in the streets?

And what of the prayers that follow: Close the path to misery; Death’s dark shadows put to flight; Give them victory o’er the grave? Didn’t the sordid record of Christian arrogance that claimed to be the true Israel, the new Israel, mock those very prayers? So much misery and death have put so many Jews in their graves at the hands of this “hopeful” new Israel. What could such prayers even mean? If this were to be truly a hymn of hope, it would need a new lyric. And so it came to be.

Over succeeding years, friends and colleagues who shared my outrage rewrote the hymn, and some of their versions have found their way into more contemporary Christian hymnals. The triumphalism was tamed and the arrogance at least muted, as God’s covenant and course with the Jewish people found its place in the story alongside the witness to God’s gift of redemption for Christians in Jesus. Each version brought a measure of truth, humility, and welcome correction. Yet each one also seemed to achieve its gains by surrendering a bit of the sublime transcendence that pervaded the original. Just by addressing the need to set the record straight, the efforts reduced the oneness of God to a negotiated narrative. The tension wasn’t removed, it was merely resolved differently. Here a contemporary version of this hymn:

Another lifetime later, in my 59th year, I have been singing the traditional text again. I hope it is not just creeping nostalgia. I think not, because this is not the romanticized vision of my 13-year-old self. I know Israel better and I know Christians better. I have learned that hopeful futures are not guaranteed by getting our stories of the past just right. Rather, they are born of transforming visions that imagine things the past could not yet offer. So the words of prophets ring truer once again.

Whatever Christmas morning brings to Christians, it almost certainly will not be the final fulfillment of the hopeful prayers for redemption. We sing year after year, because we know that fulfillment is not yet here and that “no one knows the day or the hour” when it shall come. Similarly, whatever measure of assurance and hope a sovereign Israel has brought to the Jewish people, it has not yet fully realized the hoped-for redemption of the prophets’ vision, either spatially or spiritually.

Both Christians and Jews live in a time between – already seeing glimmers of the promised blessings to come, but not yet basking in their full brilliance. It is into the predawn darkness of that shared anticipation that we pray God’s light will shine. It is in the cold reality of that night of waiting that we pray God’s comfort will reach us. It is in the deadly grip of mortal fear that we pray God’s promises of life will prove true.

And the prophets give to both of us images to carry our prayers. Our carol-hymn gives voice to those images, as do prayers of the siddur and the mahzor for Jews. When we can see in one another’s prayers the same sustaining hope we cherish, and when we can inflect our prayers with the other’s hopes as well as our own, then perhaps the beginning of a new era of fulfillment will have come. If this Christmas morning would bring that, dayenu, it would be enough.

About the Author
The Reverend Peter A. Pettit, Ph.D. is co-director of the Hartman Institute's 'New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel' project and director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. A Lutheran minister (ELCA), he has held residential fellowships at the Hebrew University, American Jewish University, and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His research and teaching focus on the hermeneutics of self-understanding in the Jewish and Christian communities. He has authored several curriculum resources for interfaith encounter.
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