In a few weeks, these lyrics will rise into the vaulted ceilings or sink into acoustical tiles of churches across the world. Words that cry out for the return of a king. Those words will echo in the strain of a hymn-turned-carol.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
A kingdom needs three things to be a kingdom: a land, a people, and a king. The pages of the Bible chronicle the epic quest of God fighting to reestablish the kingdom lost under the branches of a tree. He began by promising a land to a man who would one day become a people. Then he promised a king who would one day remake the human race immortal and pure. That “one day” has stretched long.
Not all that have fallen are vanquished;
A king may be yet without crown.
A blade that was broken be brandished;
And towers that were strong may fall down.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, captained the Rangers—the remnant of the Dunedain—tasked with the silent guardianship of the Northlands. The hobbits and men of the north called him Strider. To the elves he was Elessar, and, to a select few, he was the heir of Isildur: the one man who bore the lineage and the weapon necessary to claim the throne of both Arnor and Gondor.
And yet his kingdom lay in ruins. The strength of humanity had broken long ago. Darkness ravaged Middle Earth. Those who clung to all the good and pure trembled in the secret havens of the elves—elves who longed to leave for the far West.
Aragorn was the king his kingdom waited for.
Middle Earth languished in darkness bought by the failure of Aragorn’s ancestor, Isildur. When tempted with unfettered power, Isildur had succumbed. Rather than destroying the One Ring, the doomed king’s soul grew black, and he plunged the realm of humanity into midnight.
Aragorn was the answer—a king who could undo his ancestor’s failure. But there was nothing about him to attract a great following—no trumpets preceded his arrival. He wandered with the ruffians of the world, waiting for the time in which he might retake the throne his ancestor forfeited.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Jesus’s birth was the match-strike in a world gone from twilight to midnight. When older, he stepped out of the carpentry shop and into the fisherman’s boat, and his spark grew into a flame. For a moment—a breath-caught-in-throat moment—humanity beheld Adam’s heir.
But there was nothing about him to attract a great following—no trumpets preceded his arrival. He wandered with the ruffians of the world, waiting for the time in which he might retake the throne his ancestor forfeited.
The forces of hell rose in iron-edged concert against him, to overwhelm the solitary king with a gloaming unlike the world had ever seen. Black clouds boiled at midday, and the rightful king faced a tree like his father Adam had. And, as with his father Adam, that tree brought death to the king. Exile, it seemed, would stretch still longer.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.
When dawn stained the walls of Minas Tirith with gold, Aragorn journeyed into the caverns of the dead. Bearing the reforged sword of his office, the rightful king claimed the loyalty of the dead in their graves, called them to life, and rescued a people trapped by the forces of Sauron’s darkness. He led a crowd of captives into battle to reclaim the throne of Gondor, turn back the forces of darkness, and deliver to humanity the kingdom it lost long ago.
The exiled king had returned to his people.
O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Two thousand years have passed since Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Time has pulverized the centuries. The gloaming has returned. The present moment feels more like a moonless midnight than the blur of dusk. A new race has grown in the darkness: a humanity remade, reforged in the likeness of an exiled king. The followers of a crucified Jew have grown in number and filled the earth with embers of hope.
And yet, we stand halfway between midnight and the dawn. Our king is not here. So we wait. The earth—his land—remains in the grasp of the Accuser. We are, as a people, exiled.
Advent is coming. As the music of the season begins to fill up the air and your own soul, remember the strain in minor key—that call for a return of our coming king. Remember his birth, but look for his return. Let us all sing together.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Cover image by Marcelo Quinan.
The above poems are taken from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and Christopher Tolkien’s The Treasure of Isengard. “O Come Emmanuel” is in the public domain.