During the Christmas season we often hear a hymn sung that has these lyrics:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
But as we sing or hear it played over the radio, not many people realize that hidden within these lyrics is a secret waiting to be revealed.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel was written at a time closer to the birth of Christ than we are today. It finds its origins in the monastic traditions of the 8th or 9th century and its original Latin lyrics were crafted as an antiphon – a reflective chant for meditation. This particular antiphon was to be sung in the moments leading up to Christmas helping it’s singers to reflect on the prophets predictions about the Messiah who would come and make all things right.
It’s easy to imagine how distant the promise of the Messiah must have felt in the days leading up to the first Christmas. God’s people had been conquered and enslaved so many times in the centuries by the Babylonians; the Persians; and the Greeks. For a brief time, Hope seemed to finally prevail as a family of Jewish priests reclaimed Jerusalem and established autonomy once again. But their own corruption and greed caused the Hasmonean Kingdom to fall once again, and the Romans fixed their boot firmly on the necks of the nation again.
So, the question lingered: Will the Messiah ever truly come? And the people of God started wrestling with answers that that made the idea of a Messiah easier to make sense of. Maybe the Messiah wasn’t a person, but an idea? Or maybe Israel as a people would become their own Messiah, and rise up with military force and fulfill the promises God had given them? They started to think that a literal son of David who would wrestle back the throne of Israel and rule in justice and righteousness might be a fantasy that should be forgotten.
Of course, some people still were waiting for a personified Messiah, but fewer and fewer of the educated and sophisticated still clung to this tangible Hope. They believed too much time had passed.
Which feels very familiar.
There are times when Hope seems too grand to be believed. Or you’ve been waiting for so long that it doesn’t feel possible any longer. And this is when our ancient contemplations must remind us of a secret we desperately cling to.
Those ancient lyrics of the song titled, O Come O Come Emmanuel, were actually a secret code. The first letter of each Latin word was intentionally stitched together to form “SARCORE” a word that means nothing. It’s gibberish. Again, it seems hopeless.
But the Ancients were hiding a secret in plain sight. In reverse, these letters spell the phrase “Ero Cras: I will be present tomorrow.”
Right there, woven into our Christmas singing is the message that even when the world feels hopeless, Hope in the Flesh is preparing to enter our world. He may not arrive when we believed or in the way we would expect. But Hope is coming, Hope will be present tomorrow.
O come, O come Emmanuel.
Daily Reading: Luke 2