We anchor our faith in Emmanuel—God’s having dwelt with us, bodily, in history; but, it was not always so: for long ages, the faithful anchored their faith in the Promise that Emmanuel would dwell with them. They could not look back through history, but forward through promise. In history thus far, there have been more years of BC anticipation than AD celebration—thousands more. And for those thousands of years, the world was, as it were, dark. The Light would come—so they hoped and longed and, perhaps sometimes, struggled to believe—but He hadn’t come yet. What would that have been? We cannot fully know. But we do have an annual opportunity to liturgically recall that perspective—Advent. And a Christian cannot recall others’ hope of the First Advent without recalling his own of the Second; that is why this season which anticipates Christmas has traditionally emphasized the Second Coming; that is why we plan to sing Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying this Sunday.
It was written near Dortmund, Germany, during the plague of 1597-1598, by one of the area’s Lutheran pastors: Philip Nicolai. He conducted up to thirty funerals a day, during that plague, ultimately losing 1300 community members to it. He wrote this hymn to foster and reflect in himself and his people a stubborn hope in the Second Advent, the event which would mark the destruction of their most visible enemy: death.
“The watchmen on the heights are crying” for Jerusalem to awake, not to danger, but to joy! “Midnight hears the welcome voices and at the thrilling cry rejoices”—why? “The Bridegroom comes!” So, wise virgins, “Your lamps with gladness take” (Matt. 25:1-13). Zion’s heart “with joy is springing” and She hears her “watchmen singing.” Why? Because “her light is come.” What light? Of course, “Thou Blessed One.” There are at least two levels on which we may sing to and about “Jerusalem” and “Zion,” in this context: on one level, we expect that by the time of the Second Advent, geo-political Jerusalem really will be ready to rejoice in it (Rom. 11:15 ff.); and, on another level, we are Jerusalem (Eph. 2:12-13). So, with “all the heavens” and “saints and angels” and “the choir immortal,” we take up “harp and cymbals” around “Thy radiant throne” and “Eternally sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee!”