Sunday, December 22, 2013

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

The term "Advent"  is an anglicized version of the Latin word adventus, meaning "coming." The Advent season is popularly thought of as the period (generally, the preceding month) during which Christians anticipate and prepare for the coming Christmas holiday. On a deeper level, though, it is a time for reflection on the central thread of all human history: the need of mankind for redemption from sin, and the promised coming of the Messiah to lead us out of its darkness and reconcile the world to our loving Creator.

The Messiah's coming into the world, and His miraculous work of redemption, were foretold in a host of prophecies set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures later incorporated into the Old Testament.  It is truly breathtaking to see how fully and accurately they point to Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah!  His birthplace, family history, nature, deeds, and even the time, manner, and purpose of his death--and His resurrection--were all foretold many hundreds of years before they became accomplished fact (at least as far back as the Jewish captivity in Babylon, 605 to 538 B.C.). They also reveal the tragic fact that he would not be recognized or accepted by the very people he came to save (Isaiah 53:3), and that His glorious kingdom would be established on Earth as well as in Heaven only upon Israel's delivery at the last battle by "me whom they have pierced." (Zechariah 12:10)  Thus, there would be not one Advent, but two. But for a precious few disciples and followers, mankind "missed" the First Advent, though it led to our spiritual salvation. Ever since Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, we have been engaged in the "Second" Advent, looking forward to that "great and awesome" day (Joel 2:31 (ESV))  when the Lord comes to us again in person, to establish His righteous kingdom here on Earth. And we've done so even as we've looked back, year after year,  to that precious First Coming in Bethlehem.

The fervent longing and anticipation of both Advents is expressed in the great hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  Like the Christmas holiday itself, this moving work has a long and rich history, winding through many religious, cultural, and musical traditions.


This hymn, as we know it today in English, is based on the 12th century Latin poem "Veni Veni Emmanuel," a lyrical paraphrase--with an added chorus--of the famous "O Antiphons."  The antiphons--anthems sung to a short verse--themselves date from at least the 8th century. In the medieval Christian church (and continuing today in many), each night before the Magnificat at Vespers on the seven days before Christmas, monks would sing one of these antiphons. The word "antiphon" implies that the lines of each anthem were sung alternately by two choirs sitting opposite each other in the chancel. Each antiphon featured a prayer beginning with "O Come" and including one of the names or attributes of the Messiah mentioned in Scripture. Here they are in their original order, with reference to their scriptural basis:
  • Dec. 17: "O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi. . ." (O Wisdom from on high...)  (Isaiah 11:2-3, 28:29)
  • Dec. 18: "O Adonai et dux domus Israel. . ." (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel...)   (Isaiah 33:22)
  • Dec. 19: "O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum. . ." (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people)  (Isaiah 11:1, 10)
  • Dec. 20: "O Clavis David et sceptrum domus. . ." (O Key of David and scepter of our home...)   (Isaiah  22:22)
  • Dec. 21: "O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae. . ." (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light...)   (Isaiah  9:2)
  • Dec. 22: "O Rex gentium et desideratus. . ." (O longed-for King of the nations...)  (Isaiah 2:4, 9:6)
  • Dec. 23: "O Emmanuel, rex et legiter noster. . ." (O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver...)   (Isaiah 7:14)
(For the full text of the Antiphons, click here.)

The monks who originated these antiphons arranged them with a definite purpose: if one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one in ascending order—Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia—the Latin phrase ero cras is formed, meaning, "Tomorrow, I will come."

The Prophet Isaiah
The title of the climactic antiphon, as well as of the 12th century poem and the hymn we know today, is based on the prophecy contained in Isaiah 7:14: "[T]he Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Confirming the fulfillment of this prophecy, Matthew observed: "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us."  (Matthew 1:22-23)

John Mason Neale
Veni Veni Emmanuel apparently remained in obscurity until an unknown editor included it in the 7th edition of the collection Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, published in Köln, Germany in 1710. Almost a century and a half later, the poem came to the attention of Anglican clergyman and hymn writer John Mason Neale (1818-1866). Despite his evangelical upbringing, Neale was heavily influenced by the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement, and endured much opposition from those who thought him a closet Roman Catholic--he was once attacked at the funeral of a sister in a nursing order of Anglican nuns he founded, and at various times unruly crowds threatened to stone him or to burn his house. Kept by ill health (and possibly by resentment of his supposedly "Romish" tendencies) from serving in a parish, Neale divided his time between social ministry and the wardenship of Sackville College. He devoted most of the rest of his time to translating early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns for the holy days and seasons of the Christian year. Indeed, more than anyone else, Neale made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. His most widely known legacy is probably his contribution to the Christmas repertoire, particularly--in addition to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel--his translation of Good Christian Men, Rejoice and his original Boxing Day carol, Good King Wenceslas.

Henry Sloane Coffin
Thomas A. Lacey
Neale translated five of the seven "O Antiphons" from Latin to English, and first published these stanzas in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, in 1851 (Neale's original translation began, "Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel").  In later years and compilations, several of these stanzas and the refrain were revised and reordered by others, particularly Rev. Thomas A. Lacey (1853-1931), an editor of the first edition of The English Hymnal (1906) (click here to see his complete revised version), and American Presbyterian minister Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1954). The first five stanzas below are Neale's translation, while the last two are those most widely associated with Lacey and Coffin:
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 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.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight!


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.


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.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

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.
Thomas Helmore
The haunting, E-minor-key melody VENI EMMANUEL associated with the hymn was a 15th-century  processional originating in a community of French Franciscan nuns in Lisbon, Portugal (Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, p. 128 (Zondervan, 2001)), which was eventually traced to a manuscript in the National Library of Paris. Anglican clergyman Rev. Thomas Helmore (1811-1890) adapted this chant tune and published it in Part II of his The Hymnal Noted (1854), in collaboration with John Mason Neale. It served as the underlying theme music in opening and closing scenes of the 2006 film The Nativity Story (you can hear it in the video linked here).


O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a matchless expression of our lost and helpless human condition, and our desperate need for deliverance by a loving Power far greater than ourselves. It is also an anthem of hope and confidence that our Messiah will indeed soon return to save us finally from the darkness of this world, and gather us into the eternal light of His presence. In singing it we both look back upon our Lord's first Advent in Bethlehem, and forward to the glorious day He appears in the clouds to take us home. Thus are wedded together all generations of mankind in the greatest story ever told.

Popular author Ace Collins aptly summed up the historical and spiritual significance of the hymn and of the medieval works from which it sprang:
For the people of the Dark Ages--few of whom read or had access to the Bible--the song was one of the few examples of the full story of how the New and Old Testament views of the Messiah came together in the birth and life of Jesus. Because it brought the story of Christ the Savior to life during hundreds of years of ignorance and darkness, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" ranks as one of the most important songs in the history of the Christian faith. (Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, p. 127 (Zondervan, 2001)).


There are many worthy video performances of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Some of the following have been chosen for this post because the presentation conforms generally to the original text and music and is fairly representative of how the hymn is generally sung. Others are included because they are especially inventive and engaging, while remaining faithful to the hymn's original text, tune, and meaning. An unusually large number of videos are presented here, in order to convey the wide range of moving interpretations that this great work is subject to.

Here is a traditional rendition by an unidentified choir, with a beautiful slide show of stained glass art:

Perhaps you're curious what the hymn sounds like sung in the original Latin--Veni Veni Emmanuel. Here is a lovely example, which includes the Latin text:

The music to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is indispensable to the hymn's moving power--even without the text, as you'll hear (and see) in this instrumental version by The Piano Guys:

And now for something completely different: a very moving and robustly sung performance by the contemporary duo Sugarland, from the Country Music Association Christmas special on Nov 29, 2010. The hymn comes through, if anything, even more powerfully with the rhythmic presentation and guitar/banjo accompaniment:

Click here for a similarly moving (essentially) and anonymous solo performance accompanied on guitar, with impressive Christian artwork.

Finally, what may be the most engaging rendition of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel you'll see and hear. The hymn is usually performed in a quiet, plaintive way, but Mike Massé and Wendy Jernigan have used percussion instruments and (synthesized?) strings, along with a skillfully edited, stunning presentation of Marian and Nativity art, to transform the piece into an anthem of irresistible urgency and power. Watch and experience His coming in a most compelling way!


Presentation in the Temple (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648)

. . . For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of
Thy people Israel.

(Luke 2:29-32)

1 comment:

  1. WOW--I never knew this antiphon (one of my favorites) has such a rich history behind it. Whenever I hear or sing it, I think of the people of Israel, and their ages of longing for their Messiah. The first choral version, the 'Piano Guys', and the last arrangement, are my favorites. Thank you for reminding us of the REAL meaning of Christmas! And I pray that 'Emmanuel...shall come to Israel'--SOON.