Hymn Guide: O Come O Come Emmanuel

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Perhaps the most familiar hymn of Advent, O Come O Come Emmanuel has an ancient but obscure origin. Reference to the “O” verses, sometimes called the O Antiphons, are found in Latin literature as early as the 5th century. A set of Old English poems, written around 800 AD, expand upon the themes of each verse, exploring the meaning of each of Jesus’ titles. Eleanor Parker, a lecturer at Oxford, has written lovely translations and commentaries on these Old English poems, which are available on her blog. Our modern version of the hymn text was written by John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest and scholar of the 19th century.

One of the most intriguing features of the hymn is its tune, Veni Emmanuel. This tune originated in a 15th-century French chant for use at burials, and was then paired with the text by Thomas Helmore in 1851. Helmore recognized, quite brilliantly, that the somber experience of death together with the hope of resurrection, could double to cover the emotional territory of Advent. Both involve a somber hope of waiting upon God’s promises. And perhaps that is a good way of thinking about faith: a settled hope in God, even in the midst of the world’s decay.

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Verse by Verse

Each verse begins with “O,” an indication of direct address, together with one of the prophetic names of Christ that was used before his birth. The hymn thus brings the singer into alignment with the people of God as they waited for the fulfillment of God’s promised messiah.

Traditionally, one verse is sung each day from December 17th to December 23rd, beginning with Wisdom (see also Ashley Wallace’s ideas on how to celebrate these days in the home). But in modern renditions we sing the last verse first, beginning with Emmanuel.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

After the beautiful and haunting set-up of the verse, we come to tonal resolution with the refrain.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

The repeated “rejoice” stirs a feeling of joy in the heart, yet the final words of the refrain return to a more somber mode, leaving us in a state of hopeful expectation.

In the traditional order, the first verse is Wisdom, referring to Proverbs 8 and Isaiah 11, and is sung on December 17th.

“O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

Lord, or Adonai, refers to Exodus 3 and Exodus 20, and is sung on December 18th.

“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.

The Branch of Jesse refers to Isaiah 11:1-11, and is sung on December 19th.

“O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s Tree, free
them from Satan’s tyranny;
that trust thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.

The Key of David refers to Isaiah 22:22, and is sung on December 20th.

“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.

Dayspring refers to Luke 1:77-78 and Isaiah 9:1-2, and is sung on December 21st.

“O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

Desire of Nations refers to Jeremiah 10:7, and is sung on December 22nd.

“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.

Emmanuel refers to Isaiah 7:14 and is sung on December 23rd.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

On Video

Here are two renditions of the hymn. The first features organ and choir from Clare College, Cambridge. Be sure to listen to the end, to hear the descant on the final verse. The second, by modern Messianic Christian singer Joshua Aaron, is sung with a band in Jerusalem, in English and in Hebrew.

Published on

December 17, 2022

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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