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“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

Editorial Team

“Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 KJV).

The singing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” signals for many in the Church the beginning of the Advent Season. The song echoes the hearts of those who yearn for the coming (the Advent) of the Messiah—the fulfillment of God’s promise to His people. Thus, each year we cry out to God afresh for the advent of His Son into our hearts and into our world, confessing our deep need for and reliance upon the Lord Jesus Christ.

Though, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Latin—Veni, Veni, Emanuel) was first published, pretty much as we know it today, in 1854 in England, it’s roots go back over a thousand years before that. In fact, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is most assuredly one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Christmas Carol in most hymnbooks today and is one of the oldest texts still sung by the Church at any time of the year.

Its Advent
To find its beginnings, we have to go to France and at travel least as far back as the reign of Charlemagne (768-814). At that time the Benedictines, specifically at the Abby of Fleury, were singing in Gregorian chant during vespers the week prior to Christmas, a text that would later become known as the “O Antiphons.” These “O Antiphons” were so-called because each verse of the Latin text they were singing began with the word/letter “O.”

Each of the “O Antiphons” centered around a specific Messianic title and correlating Scripture found in Isaiah amidst his numerous prophecies concerning God’s Messiah. Originally there were seven verses comprising the text the monks and parishioners sang: “O Sapientia” (O Wisdom); “O Adonai” (O Adonai); “O Radix Jesse” (O Root of Jesse); “O Clavis David” (O Key of David); “O Oriens” (O Morning Star); “O Rex Gentium” (O King of the nations); and “O Emmanuel” (O Emmanuel). Beginning with December 17th, amidst the smoke of incense and candlelight they would sing just one verse, “O Sapientia,” then add an additional verse at each day’s vesper service until finally on the 23rd of December, “O Emmanuel” was added with great joy and anticipation for Christmas Eve.

Word Puzzles
The uniqueness of these seven verses and the special meaning they held for so many is found in the reverse acrostic message they contain. Removing the “O,” the first letters of the Messianic titles spell: S (Sapientia), A (Adonai), R (Radix), C (Clavis), O (Oriens), R (Rex), E (Emmanuel) – SARCORE, which is “ero cras” spelled backwards, which means in Latin, “I shall be with you tomorrow.” What a wonderful reminder of Christ’s advent and that finally He would indeed be Emmanuel, God with us.

These Advent “O Antiphons” were most likely predated by other “O Antiphons” as there are records dating back to the 5th Century that makes reference to the same. Either way, by the time the 8th Century rolled around, the Advent “O Antiphons” were commonplace throughout Europe’s monasteries and churches, including Rome.

The Next Step
Somewhere around the early 9th Century, the English poet, Cynewulf, penned a poem based on the “O Antiphons”—no doubt reflecting their use in the churches in England. From there, as you can imagine, the verses went through various subtle changes although the general subject matter of each verse was kept in tact. By the time of the 13th Century, the original seven Latin verses had dropped to five and now they were sung in a more metered fashion. As far as we know, these 5 Latin verses remained unchanged until 1851, when a young Anglican minister named, John Mason Neale, translated those five verses into English.

While Neale liked to write devotional material from the Psalms, he loved Church music. Hymnals around the globe still contain his beautiful offerings: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Good King Wenceslas” (Boxing Day Carol), “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “To Thee Before the Close of Day,” and others. He had a penchant for translating ancient Christian texts into English, and thus, his attraction to the Latin “O Antiphons” has become our great blessing as he gave the world “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Melody Discovered
As for the tune, Neale’s contemporaries, following his death, revealed that he had copied it from a French missal (liturgical book), but with Neale now gone such stories were hard to corroborate although anyone with an ear for early Church music could tell the simple minor tune was old. The mystery of the tune remained in place until 1966 when musicologist, nun, and teacher at the University of Cambridge, Mary Berry, discovered the tune in a 15th Century French Franciscan processional at the Bibliotheque’ Nationale de France. The verses she discovered were for a funeral procession yet contained the same notes or tune that we know to be “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

The use of several different texts with the same melody was very commonplace then and was for a long time. Several of the hymns in our hymnbooks today contain the same melody yet different lyrics. Miss Berry believed that the tune she discovered had probably been around longer than the 15th Century. As to when the “O Antiphons” were married to the ancient French tune we may never know. Yet who among us can imagine a Christmas season without the haunting beauty of John Mason Neale’s translated text and Christmas hymn?

Continuum of Adoration
There is an almost eternal quality about “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” From it’s use of Scripture, the incorporation of Christ’s Messianic titles, and the soul-baring yearning of those words that millions upon millions of Christians have uttered for over 1,300 years. There is something special about adding our own voices to those who have gone before us as a continuum of adoration and worship arises like sweet incense to our God; thanking Him for the gift of Emmanuel (God with us) and praising Him for the gift of His Holy Spirit (God in us).

Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:3-5)

O come, O come, Emmanuel!
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Branch of Jesse! Draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From the dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell, thy people save.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Safeguard for us the heavenward road,
And bar the way to death’s abode.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Adonai,
Who to thy glorious majesty
From Sinai’s mountain, clothed in awe,
Gavest thy folk the elder Law.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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