O come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.

~ Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Latin: “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”) may be my favorite Advent hymn. It was originally written in Latin perhaps as early as the eighth century. The version most of us know in English comes from the mid-nineteenth century, a time when translations, however archaic at times, strove for beauty and in this case added even more to an already content-rich hymn. While I’m not certain what the nineteenth century translators would have thought, I have an idea what “the way that leads on high” might have meant in the eighth century, and I think this verse shines through in its insight into the Christian life.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,

“Key of David” refers to Christ being the descendent of the biblical king, David, to whom God promised,

When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. (2 Samuel 7:12-14)

While in context the original reference is to David’s literal son, Solomon, Christians would later see this as also about the one, natural Son of God, Jesus Christ. By becoming incarnate of the Virgin Mary, a descendent of David, the Son of God became the Son of David “whose kingdom shall have no end,” as we say in the Creed.

The idea of Christ as a “Key” relates to the next line:

and open wide our heav’nly home,

Now, the nineteenth century translator may have in mind the heavenly dwelling of the blessed departed, but given that heaven is eternal, and therefore atemporal and nonspacial, it might be better to think of “our heav’nly home” as the state of blessedness itself, rather than some “place” in the literal sense. Christ himself even insists, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

Thus, by fulfilling the ancient prophesy to king David, Christ makes blessedness “open wide” to all.

make safe the way that leads on high,

Now, again, “on high” could be understood spacially, but doing so would not really capture the sense in which an ancient Christian would have understood this. The sky is an image of the spiritual heaven: light, beautiful, majestic, angelic, unreachable. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, “So are My ways higher than your ways” (Isaiah 55:9).

Yet Christ comes to “make safe the way.” God, being holy, wholly other than anything in all creation, enters creation through the incarnation. Thus, though his ways be high above the heavens, in Christ they are “open wide.” In Christ—i.e. through the sacramental life of the Church and asceticism—“the way” of God, the way of life and light and righteousness, the “narrow” and “difficult” “way that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14) is made “safe.”

But “safe”—“safe” from what? I can think of many things: passions, sins, anxieties, sorrows, demons, temptations, self-will, praises, pride. Anything that threatens to displace the peace of God from our hearts. Lord knows how many things daily war against us! From all of these, the Prince of Peace “make[s] safe the way.”

that we no more have cause to sigh.

“No more have cause to sigh”! No more. Perhaps we might even say that the Son of God “make[s] safe the way” from the deadly threat of sighing.

How many people have left the narrow and difficult road for the broad and easy way simply because they were tired? How many more on that broad road that leads to death are so easily weighed down by the difficult yoke of ephemeral living and the heavy burden of sin?

But there’s the paradox: while we are naturally resistant to travel the narrow and difficult road (one of many reasons we need grace), each step in the right direction we hear the voice of Christ more clearly saying, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

It is easy to sin in the moment, but difficult to bear the burden. It is difficult to live virtuously, but easy to bear for eternity.

And this way is made safe for us, the doors are “open wide,” because in one divine act of seemingly foolish love, He who was born of God descended to be born of a Virgin.

O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel,
shall come to thee o Israel!

Even now, while we look for him to “come again in glory,” let us rejoice. Rejoice! for he opens wide the gates of heaven. Rejoice! for he makes safe the way.

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