O Come, O Come Emmanuel

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, O Come Emmanuel is definitely in my top favorite Christmas carols of all times. The haunting melody transports me to biblical times, imagining myself as an ancient Israelite crying out to God during the 400 years of silence for the Savior to come and redeem my people. You can hear the lamentation and desperate hope through the lyrics of each verse, culminating in the “Rejoice! Rejoice!” of the refrain.

The carol is reminiscent of several psalms from Scripture …

image for Emmanuel
Photo by Mark Rabe on Unsplash

History of the Hymn

Perhaps that is what the author had in mind when writing the song. While the exact author remains unknown, scholars widely assume O Come, O Come Emmanuel was written by a monk or nun during the 9th century. As a major part of monastic life was copying the Scriptures, the writer of O Come, O Come Emmanuel could very well have been immersed in the Psalms, and those lyrical verses influenced his words in the Christmas carol.

It may not be a stretch to think O Come, O Come Emmanuel started as a personal psalm to the Lord … but we’ll save that speculation for other minds.

During the early 19th century, an Anglican priest by the name of John Mason Neale was reading an ancient book of poetry and hymns. During his literary pursuit, the priest dusted off this unknown Latin poem (ha! maybe my idea above wasn’t as far-fetched as one might think!), which was complete with a musical accompaniment (as many of the psalms were …).

A multi-lingual scholar, Neale was able to translate the song into English. He published the carol in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences in 1851. After publication, Neale played the hymn for those he served–the orphans, schoolgirls, and reclaimed prostitutes of the Madeira islands near Africa. Beginning with the lowest members of society, O Come, O Come Emmanuel has become one of the most popular Christmas carols ever since.

O come, o come, Thou Lord of might
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty and awe

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

image for Emmanuel
Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash

Theology of the Hymn 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is the final hymn in a seven-part ritual. A week before Christmas Eve, monks would sing melodies called the “O Antiphons.” These songs were written to direct the mind toward the coming of Christ–the Incarnation–by weaving references from the Old and New Testaments into the lyrics. Each antiphon focuses on a different name of Jesus Christ. As with everything, the monks were intentional in the order in which they sang these hymns.

  1. O Sapientia (Wisdom)
  2. O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
  3. O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
  4. O Clavis David (Key of David)
  5. O Oriens (Dayspring)
  6. O Rex Genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  7. O Emmanuel (God is with us)

Together, the first letters of each text form the acrostic, SARCORE. Read backward, it reads, “Ero cras.” This is a Latin phrase translating to “I will be present tomorrow.” When you consider that O Emmanuel is the final antiphon before Christmas Eve (and the birth of the Savior), the meaning of this Latin acrostic takes on more significance.

New & Old Testaments

Furthermore, O Emmanuel is the only antiphon that references both the Old and New Testament. Perhaps to form another connection between the promised Savior and the Incarnation, the old covenant and the new High Priest. The Scripture references are from Isaiah 7:14, which reads,

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

And the New Testament reference is when Matthew directly quotes this passage from the OT prophet in chapter 1, vs. 23. All seven antiphons form the verses of our current version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, though the order has changed.

While the carol has numerous textual variations, it remains true to the purpose of the original Latin text. The longing and waiting for the first and second comings of Christ. The oscillation between the abundant joy of life in Christ and the heartbreaking sorrow of life in a broken world. In a culture driven by instant gratification, entertainment, and consumerism, and in a world wracked with suffering, death, and disease, the words of O Come, O Come Emmanuel remind believers that we are bound for another country. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,

If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.

This world is not our home. And while we work with, in, and through Jesus Christ to transform creation into God’s vision for the world, we know the final redemption will not take place until the Savior returns riding on the clouds.

*Side note: Neale originally translated the first line of the carol as “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.” While the words change, the yearning still pierces through.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

image for Emmanuel
Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Musicality of the Hymn 

The hymn’s music captures the tension of the longing and the hoping. While scholars and historians are not absolutely certain about the origins of the musical accompaniment, many believe it was inspired by a 15th-century processional funeral hymn from French Franciscan nuns. An apt source of inspiration, as a funeral mourns the loss of life due to sin but also celebrates eternal life in Jesus.

Over time, the blocked chords of the original music morphed into the flowing, plainsong accompaniments we are familiar with today.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

When Christians sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, we are participating in a sacred Advent ritual over eleven centuries old. But we are also participating in a refrain that has resounded throughout the universe from Genesis chapter 3 and will continue pouring forth from heavens and earth until the final Revelation.

Here are some fantastic renditions of this Christmas hymn by The Piano Guys, Sovereign Grace, and Enya.

Remaining Lyrics

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease
And be Thyself our King of peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Check out more of Faith’s work at her blog, Contemplāre

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