One of our most familiar and time-honored Advent hymns is the hauntingly beautiful Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmauel. It is an old Latin hymn that goes back to the 1100’s, some say even before A.D. 800. It speaks of ancient Israel longing for the coming of Christ, the Messiah, to set them free from the real bondage of sin, death and hell.
It speaks to all those whom Paul calls “the Israel of God,” that is, to the spiritual “Israel” made up of all who believe in Christ, both Jew and Gentile.
So we Christians have been singing this beautiful, old Advent hymn for something like a thousand years.
Some years ago, a columnist from the Chicago Tribune explained why this particular hymn had been omitted from the Tribune’s annual sing-along.
The columnist explained that the first verse of the famous Advent hymn “contains an unmistakable dig at Jews when it says that the Messiah will “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”
He went on to complain, saying: “I hear in those words [of the hymn] the same tut-tut I heard in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, ‘[Jesus, a Jew] came unto His own and His own received Him not,’ and the implication that those who aren’t Christian continue to be, in effect, captives mourning in lonely exile.”
In New York City, a lady rabbi, Margaret Moers Wenig, agreed, saying: “Jews are not awaiting the advent of a savior to ransom us.”
In U.S. Catholic magazine, Sister Mary C. Boys maintained that Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel “disparaged Judaism by proclaiming…that the coming of Christ made Judaism obsolete.”
In all this “political correctness” over an ancient hymn, there is a healthy reminder for us: The world is not offended by Santa Claus, Reindeer, Christmas Trees or candy canes. What Paul called “the offense of the gospel” is precisely what these folks are upset about.
Christ did come to ransom captive “Israel” both then and now. Christ’s coming did make Judaism obsolete because Christ fulfilled all of the ceremonies, sacrifices and prophecies of the Old Testament which pointed ahead to Him.
Those who are not Christians are captives living in lonely exile – be they Jew or Gentile in their human ancestry. Only Christ can set souls truly free!
This is the offense of the cross – that we are saved only through childlike faith in the One whose coming, living, dying and rising has redeemed us to God. It is this hard and heartening truth – that salvation is found in no one else – a truth which offends a world which thinks all paths lead to God. The old General Prayer of the ancient Church may offend many, but it is still our prayer as we await the second advent – the final coming – of Emmanuel: “Send forth laborers into Thy harvest, and open the door of faith unto all the heathen and unto the people of Israel.” Let all God’s people sing on!