In History of Hymns: Hymn expresses longing for arrival of our Savior, Dr. C. Michael Hawn discusses the background and writing of the carol “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”. Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.
The carol was written by Charles Wesley. It was initially published in 1744 in a small collection of hymns entitled Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord. Albeit small, its reception by the public was significant, and it was reprinted 20 times during his lifetime. While the title of the collection relates to the nativity of Christ, the carol is now generally sung during the Advent season.
Interestingly enough, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” appeared in an American Methodist hymnal in 1847, nearly 30 years before it was included in a British Methodist hymnal. Now there is only the rare North American hymnal that omits this hymn. Rather, it has become integral to the celebration of our preparation for Lord’s Advent.
According to Dr. Hawn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” has the quality of a petition—a prayer that implores Christ to be among us. Imperative verbs are used six times in the two stanzas found in the hymnal: “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”; “From our fears and sins release us”; “Let us find our rest in thee”; “Now thy gracious kingdom bring”; “Rule in all our hearts alone”; “Raise us to thy glorious throne.” The cumulative effect of these petitions is a tone of supplication. Wesley succeeds in recalling the deep longing of ancient Israel for the Messiah – the Promised One.
According to Dr. Hawn, British hymnologist J.R. Watson noted that this hymn’s “uniqueness comes from its skillful conjunction of several elements into one simple-sounding discourse. Those elements include the Old Testament promise of the Messiah, ‘Israel’s strength and consolation’ who has been long expected and who will set his people free; the New Testament story of the birth of the child who is also a king (Matthew 2:6); and the idea of the Christ-child not only as the strength and consolation of Israel, but also the hope of all the earth, a Christ who is born for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.”
Rather than trying to retell the Christmas story narrative from the scripture, Charles Wesley provides a poetic theological discourse that allows us to apply the story of Christmas to our lives.
Although we live in a different time than Charles Wesley, the longings of people’s hearts are just as deep. And where will our longing, our hopeful waiting lead us? Wesley tells us the answer to this question in the final phrase of the carol:
“Raise us to thy glorious throne.”
For countless Christians around the world, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” signals the beginning of Advent.
Listen to the carol sung here from the album “The Way” in a Manger.
Father, we come to You as we consider the Advent season and the coming of our Savior, and we praise You for the gift of Your Son. We do pray that Your kingdom would come and that we would be raised to live with You forever through the merit of His work on Calvary.