The Christmas Holy Days find us amidst a nation and world torn by strife. We are on the brink of a New Year that threatens the same kind of trouble, and perhaps far more. The Middle East, a flash point for tensions among the three Abrahamic faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is of particular concern currently. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! Pray for peace everywhere.
Strain among faiths and people of faith is embedded in some of our most cherished texts in the Bible and in our hymns. The songs of Advent and Christmas are some of the most beloved. But there are words that I have sung from memory all of my life that I find increasingly troubling, especially lately, given the rise of anti-Semitism here and abroad. Just when we thought we were making progress in interfaith relations, there are new and troubling setbacks.
So it is that I find myself uneasy singing the first, familiar stanza of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" – especially the words "and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear." While I appreciate the rootedness of the Christ-event in the whole history of God’s people, including the Hebrews, I do not believe that Israel is captive and in exile now in ways that necessitate Christ’s intervention for God’s chosen ones. Moreover, the hymn’s refrain does not sit well with me: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel." Emmanuel comes to all nations. Why the focus in the hymn just on Israel? Again, I can understand it all from an historical perspective. But how does this sing and ring today?
I am sensitive to Jewish hearers and other thoughtful people who would see in these cherished texts themes of supersessionism, that is, the view that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, that God’s covenant with the people of Israel no longer pertains without their acceptance of Jesus as their Messiah. I hearken to the apostle Paul who concluded that "as regards election [the people of Israel] are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." (Romans 11:28b-29)
Given the history of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, and the horrific legacy of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust in nations of Lutheran heritage, we Lutherans have a particular responsibility to exercise great care in what we say and sing, perhaps especially with words that are most deeply lodged in our memories and traditions.
With all of this in mind, during one of those night-watches when I could not sleep, I endeavored as an Advent devotion to craft alternative words to the first stanza of the beloved song, Veni, Emmanuel. My devotion led me back to the ancient "O Antiphon" on which the hymn stanza is based: "O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God." Note that there is no specific reference to Israel in this antiphon. Rather, it points more expansively to the nations.
So here is a rendering of the hymn stanza that removes theologically problematic references to Israel, and which arguably is more in keeping with the actual language of the original antiphon:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
Our king whose rule frees us from grips of hell,
Come save us, Lord, and be with us, God,
So that your reign of hope is spread abroad.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, and make the nations well.
Who am I to attempt to re-write a beloved hymn? Yet the reconciling interfaith work to which we are called beckons this kind of effort, for healing among faith traditions, for such a time as this.
Emmanuel, come to us, to heal your people, to heal the nations. Let this be the prayer that we sing and live now, and in the New Year – and always.