John 1:4 – “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (ESV).
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is one of my favorite Christmas carols/advent hymns, and, like most people of my generation I suspect, the Mannheim Steamroller arrangement on their 1988 album A Fresh Aire Christmas is my favorite rendition. Admittedly, that version uses the original Latin lyrics and it’s hard to tell how many verses it uses, since the music dominates over the words, anyway. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” itself has had its own rather long and complicated history: beginning in Latin, translated multiple times into English (and other languages, no doubt), added verses, amalgamated versions, revisions, arrangements, and more. For our purposes here, to keep it simple, I’d like to focus on the second (or third) verse, which goes like this (in the version I know):
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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Light and Life
Before I explore the carol itself, though, I’d like to background this discussion with some initial thoughts on the epigraph. John in his gospel makes frequent mention of Jesus as Light. Perhaps the reference that springs most readily to mind is Jesus Himself declaring “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). On one hand, to those of us who only know English translations, it seems Jesus is talking about clarity or understanding, a metaphorical light bulb going off above our heads concerning how to live correctly when we know Jesus, in contrast to the darkness of sin and confusion. But Jesus isn’t just talking about proper thinking – this light is “the light of life,” as Jesus further explains. He isn’t just a strategy guide to coping with life’s challenges; much more than that, His light is life itself. We aren’t fully alive until we are in His light.
As I said, John refers to this aspect of Jesus quite a bit. He is so eager to describe Jesus as life-giving light it’s one of the first things he ascribes to Him in the opening of his gospel (John 1:4). As John progresses through his introduction, he seems to be using light and life interchangeably, as if they are identical – and since he has already heard Jesus call Himself light and life and truth (and a door and a vine and quite a few other things), he likely feels justified in equating them. This has been especially interesting to me lately as we have been looking at this passage intensively in Greek class. John has just spent some time equating God the Father and Jesus (the Word), so we are likely to equate God the Father with light and life as well, a thought John seems to confirm later in his epistles.
In the beginning of 1 John, after an impassioned defense of his credibility as a firsthand witness of Jesus and His message, John sums up Jesus’ message not with “God is Love” (that doesn’t come until chapter four) but “God is Light.” Perhaps this is because he is mainly concerned with dispelling false teaching and directing his audience back to the truth of God, but it has often been intriguing to me that John spends so much time in the first couple of chapters emphasizing truth and darkness and life and death. His explanation for writing in chapter two centers around clinging to truth and rejecting falsehood (more so than loving one other, though that, too, is important to John).
So for John, and so for us, Light and Life are effectively the same, and both are embodied in Jesus.
Darkness and Death
You can likely see where this is going as we transition back to the Christmas carol at hand. The carol covers a variety of aspects of human life for which the proper (if not only) solution is the advent of Christ: Israel is captive and needs release, but more than that they are “lonely” and only Emmanuel can solve that anomie by being with His people (not just changing their social status). As the Rod of Jesse, a metonymy for authority, Jesus is needed to overthrow the tyranny of Satan not by helping us endure difficulties in this present life but by usurping Satan’s dominion in the afterlife and giving us victory over the grave. To resolve the present time of discord, warring nations need Jesus to bring Heaven’s peace to the whole world. And for this verse, Nature itself needs restoration from the pervasive gloom of death and darkness, and we, as beings in Nature, need cheering up because the dark is bringing us down.
The first line of this stanza implores the return of Jesus the Dayspring, a somewhat archaic expression for the dawn itself. Since we need the dawn to arrive, immediately we know the carol is describing our present state as dark, but this is not Robert Frost’s ambivalent night with which we may be acquainted, a night in which the distant moon is shining down giving us no clue as to what is right or wrong (“Acquainted With the Night”). Nor is it Coleridge’s nighttime of peaceful reflections and hope for our children’s future while they sleep (“Frost at Midnight”). Rather, this darkness is clearly bad: we need cheering up because of this darkness, the clouds are not fresh spring rainclouds but harbingers of gloom and depression, and the shadows around us are not only scary because it’s dark (who knows what macabre, ethereal light source is generating these shadows?) but they are shadows of death, and they are fast approaching. We need both light and life to rescue us.
Fortunately, both Light and Life have arrived, and we can rejoice. Despite the minor key of the carol, it is an optimistic experience. In one sense, Jesus has already come as Light and Life. We have the light of life, resolving both our need for clear and proper thinking about ourselves and our dark world and, more importantly, eternal life. But this carol expresses so well that we still can be burdened by life’s difficult (sometimes tragic) experiences, even with eternal life and a spiritual worldview. We need Jesus to return again to complete the process of restoration and renewal begun in His first advent, which we expectantly celebrate each year at Christmastime. Fortunately, I say again, we can rejoice: Emmanuel will come again. His return is a reality. The clouds of gloom and despair will permanently be dispersed. The dark shadows of death will forever be illuminated out of existence in the eternal presence of Jesus, the Son of God and Light of the World. Rejoice!