WELS Hymnal Project

Advent: Looking Forward by Looking Back

As a child, I remember my parents having us count down the days to Christmas with an Advent calendar. There was the usual haranguing among siblings over whose turn it was to open that day’s door. But each door revealed something about the coming Savior—an Old Testament reference, a picture of Gabriel, Mary or Joseph, a shepherd or sheep—all leading up to the manger behind the December 25 door. We looked ahead to the celebration of our Savior’s birth by looking back to God’s promises.

The hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” has us looking forward by looking back. We look back to the Old Testament pictures of the coming Savior: Emmanuel, Root of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David. The coming Savior will be God with us. He will be descended from the family of King of David. He will be the key that opens the gates of heaven. He will be the light shining in the darkness of this evil world.

This ancient (12th century) and well-loved hymn with its chant-like melody also directs our thoughts forward to what the coming Savior accomplishes for us.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Like the people of Israel in captivity in heathen Babylon, we were enslaved by our own wickedness in this evil world. The blood of the Son of God made flesh is the ransom price to set us free.

Oh, come, O Root of Jesse, free
Your own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell your people save,
And bring them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Jesus has rescued us from the fear of death and the reality of hell by his death and resurrection.

Oh, come, O Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Pain. Suffering. Sadness. Death. They hang over us like a black cloud and can sap the joy out of life. But the good news of our Savior’s coming comforts us and cheers us.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Even though our sins cause great trouble and would keep heaven closed to us, great David’s greater Son has opened the door to the joys of heaven.

As children, we anticipated the opening of gifts on Christmas. As children of God, we also anticipated the celebration of the Gift in Christmas services. We looked back at the Old Testament promises and saw their fulfillment in the baby laid in Bethlehem’s manger. As we look back to God’s promises and “look back” by singing an ancient Advent hymn, may we look forward and rejoice at what our Savior’s coming has done and won for us.

About Joel Otto

Joel Otto served in the parish ministry for 16 years before accepting the call to Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2011 to teach church history and education. He served parishes in Midland, MI; Manitowoc, WI; San Diego, CA; and Minocqua, WI. In addition to serving on the hymnody committee, he has been a regular contributor to Meditations and Forward in Christ and serves on the WELS Commission on Worship and the new catechism project.

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