My favorite Christmas hymn is “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” a 12th Century Christian hymn originally written in Latin. Here are the words and I wish Stephanie Seefeldt would make the ivories of her piano sing this song for us:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan?s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death?s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai?s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, Thou Root of Jesse?s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
A justification for seeing Christmas as release from exile can be found in Matthew’s Gospel:
Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17).
Christmas is the End to Exile. Tom Wright made a big deal of the theme “exile” as dominating the Jewish world and that Jesus and Paul both set their theology into such a context by proclaiming that the exile was now ended. Tom has probably over done this theme at times, but it is a theme that he captured for us and brought back to our understanding of the historical context of Jesus. And Matthew evidently thought along similar lines.
The implications are clear:
1. Jesus is the Victor, the one who enters into enemy territory and releases us from captivity. This is the point of Mark 10:45.
2. Humans are in captivity, and this has traditionally been seen with words that begin with “s”: to sin, to self, to Satan, and to systemic evil.
3. Jesus releases us, not simply through the cross, but at Christmas in the Incarnation, in his Life as the obedient life of the Second Israel and Second Adam, through his death by taking on our captivity, and through the Resurrection by breaking the powers of sin, self, Satan, and systemic violence. He now gives us the Spirit to be empowered to live that life.
4. Christmas is about bring the end-to-exile theme to others.
Christmas is the End of Exile and we need to live out a Life destined for the Promised Land.