O Come, Emmanuel

Luke 21:25-36
© Stacey Steck

If you look at the bottom of the page of most hymnals that contain the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” you will see its words credited to a certain John Mason Neale, a British hymnographer. For some reason, this edition of the Presbyterian Hymnal chose to leave out the man who is also known for bringing us “Good King Wenceslas” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” among more than 400 other lesser known hymns, but he was the one who pulled together from many ancient traditions the words we sing again this morning. Like many artists, John Mason Neale did not receive much critical acclaim for his efforts during his lifetime, but, as it has been written about him, “In time… the oversight of his own Church would be corrected. Archbishop Trench called him ‘the most profoundly learned hymnologist of our church;’ another wrote ‘one of the most erudite scholars, one of the best linguists, one of the most profound theologians, and the foremost liturgist of his time.’ Neale could read, write and think in 21 languages and was especially conversant in Latin and Greek.”

It was from his great knowledge of Latin that in 1851 he translated “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” the seventh stanza of the Advent Antiphons, into what is now one of the most beloved of Advent hymns in the English language church. While I am neither conversant in Latin, nor even sure of my pronunciation, here are the words of that seventh stanza in their original language, because they should not be missed in their natural state:
Veni, Veni Emmanuel! Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel, nascetur pro te, Israel.
There it is. I always wanted to speak Latin in church. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, the call to our Savior to return.

According to some sources, the Advent Antiphons, or the O Antiphons as they are sometimes called, are among the oldest existing Christian prayers. They were traditionally recited as a part of the evening Vespers prayers of the Roman Catholic Church before and after the recitation of The Magnificat in the eight days before Christmas Eve. Each of the seven stanzas addressed the Messiah by one of his titles, each one praising the coming of the Savior by a different name, hence, O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Star of the East (or O Dayspring), O King of the Nations, and, of course, O Emmanuel, God with Us, whose Scriptural basis comes to us from the prophet Isaiah, in the seventh chapter, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” And you also see why they are called the O Antiphons. Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, in Latin, the first letters of the titles make an acrostic which, when read backwards, spell Ero Cras, which means: “Tomorrow I will be there,” to the medieval mind clearly a reference to the approaching Christmas vigil.

Such was the power of these ancient words that John Mason Neale translated them, rearranged their order, and set them to music arranged by his favorite collaborator, Thomas Hellmore, and we are still singing them today, although, if you read all the way to the bottom of the hymn’s credits, you will see that although Neale did a perfectly wonderful job, others have tried to improve the hymn even more, and hence the final two verses were perfected in 1916 by the great twentieth century preacher, Henry Sloane Coffin. One final, more trivial note about the O Antiphons, which may appeal to any fantasy fiction buffs in the room, is that they served as the basis for a very old Anglo Saxon poem by Cynewolf, a work which so enamored JRR Tolkien that he added the names of some of the characters in that poem to his book, “The Hobbit.” So, more than you ever wanted to know about any one hymn. Now, what does it all mean?

I think what it all means is that we human beings, and especially we Christians, have recognized our limitations, have seen our best efforts fail to bear fruit, and in the end, all we can do, in every age, and in every generation, is cry out for Christ’s return. We are desperate for the release promised by God through Jesus Christ, we are desperate for God’s grace, we are desperate for God’s presence. Come, O God, please come, be with us! We cannot do it without you! We have tried, and made a mess of it. We are like Humpty Dumpty who has fallen off the great wall, and neither all the king’s horses, nor all the king’s men, can put us back together again. Only you, O Christ, can redeem this broken world, and our broken lives. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

On this First Sunday of Advent, our Scripture passages remind us that the presence of God we seek is not only the presence of the babe in a manger, but the presence of the God who can put the world back together, and who has promised to do so, in God’s good time. From Jeremiah’s words reminding God’s people of God’s promise to restore their fallen fortunes: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness”; to Paul’s words from First Thessalonians which we didn’t formally read this morning, but also appointed for this day: “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” In every age of God’s people, we yearn for that day of return when God’s reign reverses all our wayward fortunes, fixes all our mistakes, and obliterates all our sin from the world, once and for all. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Those promises of return may be of little comfort, however, when they always seems to be Ero Cras: “Tomorrow I will be there.” It’s always tomorrow with you, isn’t it, God? What about today? What about my needs today? What about the starving children, the maimed soldiers, the beaten prostitutes, the suicidal alcoholics? Why do they have to wait for tomorrow? What good are your promises for them, for me, if they come too late for my suffering? This is the imperative to us of the Gospel, that we bring Christ’s presence into the world today, even as we wait for Ero Cras. This is the dual message we celebrate during Advent as we remember both the once and future coming of Christ into our world. For as it was in the first coming that we catch a glimpse of the second coming, it those who suffer that catch a glimpse of the future Christ in Christ’s presence here on earth today, in we the church. You see, when God’s people cry out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” they are crying out for God, yes, but they are also crying out for us, for our incomplete and inept presence, but perhaps also their only visible sign of God’s presence in the world.

Let me return to John Mason Neale’s time to offer an example of the power of that presence. Neale arrived to study at Cambridge University during the final years of the life a certain Charles Simeon, rector of Trinity Chapel at Cambridge, the University’s church. It is quite possible we would never have had “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” were it not for the efforts of Charles Simeon to bring the presence of God into the midst of the Cambridge campus. When Simeon was appointed to Trinity Chapel, it is said that “the Gospel had not been preached there for more than forty years,” and true or not, at the very least we can say that the movement of the Spirit was at low ebb at Cambridge. To say that Simeon was not well received at Cambridge is an understatement. His more evangelical style, in contrast to the rationalistic mindset of the university in those days, brought him into conflict with virtually everyone. Longtime members of the church even took to locking their pews during his sermons, so that those who wished to listen would have to stand in the aisles. Frequently during his sermons in the early years, parishioners would even throw bricks through the windows of the church to disrupt him. But he persevered, and increasingly, the church began to fill up with students, and by the end of his life, Simeon had profoundly and personally influenced a generation of young Anglican priests, began a missionary society that would send hundreds of young people off to missionary service, and founded the predecessor campus ministry organization to what is now called the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, in which some of you while in college may have participated. All of this had been accomplished by the time John Mason Neale arrived on campus into an environment that would nurture his spirit rather than crush it, and pave the way for the words we sing this morning, and throughout this Advent.

I want to encourage you this Advent to eagerly await the coming of Christ, on Christmas Day a few weeks from now, and on that unknown day in the future, but also to be that presence of God that so many need. Remember that you are a “living legacy of faith, hope, service, and patient endurance” and that the presence we bring is as needed now as much as it ever has been. May God bless us this Advent as we both cry out, and answer, those ancient words, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Amen.

The Truth About Silence

John 18:33-38a
© Stacey Steck

And so today we have arrived at another Christ the King Sunday, with a hard and confusing text about Jesus and Pilate, and an unanswered question hanging in the air. Jesus has been turned over to the Roman governor Pilate amid vague accusations by Temple officials that he was guilty of crimes deserving a death sentence. Pilate is compelled to do something with this Jesus and so an interrogation begins. And what begins with a rather simple question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” ends up with the mind-bending question, “What is truth?” and in between, Jesus has taken both Roman and Jewish notions of truth and kingship and turned them sideways.

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus has spoken about truth — “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” — “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” — “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” In the very first chapter of John, we are told that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Jesus has a lot to say about truth and he winds up saying to Pilate, “For this I was born: to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And then Pilate asks his question that is the theological equivalent of asking the price of a shiny bauble in a Beverly Hills boutique; honey, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. “What is truth?” Pilate asks, because in his empire, all religions are created equal, even if some are more equal than others, and he wants to know if Jesus’ brand of truth claims to trump the empire’s. And if it claims to be a higher truth, he will indeed have a problem on his hands.

Pilate is not the only one who doesn’t “get it” about truth. Truth is one of the main themes in John, along with light. Those who know Jesus know the truth and stand in the light. Those who do not live in darkness and falsehood. It is as simple as that. Jesus has come to reveal God, to testify to that truth, to bring the light into the world. It is an open and shut case. And Pilate, the temple leaders, and quite a few others in the Gospel of John don’t make the grade; they don’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God he is and therefore do not see God for who God is. For them, Jesus remained one truth among many in a pluralistic Roman empire that recognized the value of a live and let live religion policy.

Truth, then, is the perfect word to be used here, for the root of the Greek word for “truth” means “non-concealment.” Maybe this is why today we use the expression “uncovering the truth,” because at its core, a truth is that which is seen or indicated, what is expressed or disclosed, a thing as it really is. And so in the Gospel of John, the truth is Jesus’ non-concealment of God, his revealing of God. This is not truth in the legal sense or truth in the scientific sense. It is spiritual truth, a truth from before the creation of the world, a truth beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend. The truth Jesus is talking about has everything to do with disclosure, and authenticity, about a divine reality, about revelation, about “I am.” In a sense, truth is the ability to reveal God. It is as though Jesus had said, “I did not come as a King; I came as truth; I did not come to assume power, but to reveal it to you.”

For those of you who have not been introduced to Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian pastor and author, let me commend him to you. He has a way of coming to terms with some of the more complex and mystifying matters of faith. And concerning truth and Pilate’s question, Buechner has made a keen observation. He notes that Jesus does not respond to Pilate’s question, and it is in the silence of Jesus’ non-response that the answer comes most profoundly. Buechner’s insight is that there is an intimate relationship between truth and silence, for in silence is found the most profound encounter with God, the kind you can’t run from, the kind you can’t hide from. Silence, like truth, is very often uncomfortable. Silence, like truth, makes us face ourselves. It cuts to our quick. It lays us bare and makes us raw. Truth is a conversation stopper. Truth never lies, it doesn’t have to. It has the power to say nothing and just be, dangling in front of us, challenging us to question it so that it can remain silent. Truth almost seems smug and condescending, daring us to confront it so that it can convict us.

Buechner goes on to say that silence by itself is not enough and it takes words to give shape to the silence, to frame it like bricks and mortar do to the “space” of a building. You see, good architecture is not really about the building itself so much as the space the structure creates. The materials for this building, lying in a heap on a piece of land signify nothing. But arranged just so, they create a space in which we are able to worship our God and recognize better the truth among us. The task of words is to create the silence in which God is revealed. Truth and silence, mediated by words, are the best of friends.

I experienced that friendship many years ago now, on the day before Thanksgiving as a matter of fact, as I sat in a restaurant with the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh who exploded, one by one, my supposedly well-reasoned excuses for not looking for a call to a church outside of Pittsburgh where I had graduated from Seminary, and where we wanted to continue to live. After each question he asked, I stammered through a suddenly unconvincing answer, at one point spending what seemed like an eternity, but was really only three minutes, which actually is a long time, trying to formulate for myself and for him an honest answer, when none was to be found. His words created a silence big enough to drive a truck through, and revealed to me something about myself and about God I had decided to ignore. It was like standing naked in front of a mirror. You cannot hide from the truth of your own body or your mortality. And you can’t hide from the truth of God. I started looking for churches outside Pittsburgh that weekend.

There is no question that divine truth works in our individual lives as it did in mine. And I’m sure that each of you has been face to face with the truth, perhaps even in an experience of silence. But it also works on a bigger scale. If we were to take Buechner’s insight about the shaping of silence, and combine it with the metaphor of architecture, we might find that the people of the church can be that which gives shape to silence and then truth; that is, as we live and breathe together in the Spirit, we have the opportunity to help to reveal truth by the shape our actions give it. Let me say that again: we have the opportunity to help to reveal truth by the shape our actions give it. If our words and actions are Christ-like, if they create in the world a profound and holy silence, then we give witness to the church, and we reveal its character, and if we are lucky, we reflect the very nature of God, which is truth.

The truth to which Jesus is witnessing in this episode with Pilate is that the rules of the Kingship game are not only changed but are incomprehensible to those who do not listen to the truth. Jesus and Pilate are clearly not on the same page. The world cannot understand a king who does not act like a king, a king who does not wield the power that kings wield. It is utter nonsense. It is absurdity. And therein lies our task and our calling: to be about the business of shaping the silence which gives witness to this glorious nonsense, this fantastic incomprehensibility that God reveals in Jesus Christ.

My friends, if we really believe that Christ is ruler over all the kings of the earth, we’ve got a lot of silence to create to make that incomprehensibility known. We need to shape a holy silence that reveals the truth that it is simply unjust that millions of children die of starvation and disease when we have so many resources at our disposal. We need to create a holy silence that makes it known that thousands of children are forced to work in sweatshop conditions to make the products we trot out to the Mall to buy at Christmas. We need to give form to a holy silence that announces the end of a culture of domestic violence that is the leading cause of injury and death among women in most countries. We need to mold a holy silence in which the least, the lost, and the lonely can hear God calling them to experience the intimate and wonderful truth of Jesus Christ.

These are all daunting tasks to be sure, but how much more daunting can they be than taking an absurd and incomprehensible truth into the heart of the Roman Empire as did the Apostle Paul. How much more difficult can it be than helping to end slavery and then segregation, or creating the United Nations, or standing up to the Nazi’s, all things this remarkable thing we call the Christian church has been part of. May God bless us all as we go about the work of giving shape to a silence that speaks the truth, loudly and clearly and which helps the whole world to understand and experience how wonderful God’s reign really is. Amen.