I discovered this interesting piece of church hymnal history while searching for something quite different. During this Christmas season I hope you find it fits each day of the coming year as well.
I often find it soothing somehow the history of how classic hymns came to be, then develop as I trace the story through the years. The many that clearly describe the triune God the Father, Savior, and the Spirit translate the biblical message in caresses of melody within my spirit. It invigorates a tired soul as it paints a portrait of God on the inner canvas of a welcoming weary mind. ~G.W.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
9th-Century Latin hymn
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
This hymn, originally in Latin, takes us back over 1,200 years to monastic life in the 8th- or 9th-century. Seven days before Christmas Eve monasteries would sing the “O antiphons” in anticipation of Christmas Eve when the eighth antiphon, “O Virgo virginum” (“O Virgin of virgins”) would be sung before and after Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55).
The Latin metrical form of the hymn was composed as early as the 12th century. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the famous architect of the Oxford movement, discovered the Latin hymn in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,” with a refrain. Neale, a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, included it in his influential collection, Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851).
British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in the UM Hymnal: “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”
Each antiphon begins as follows:
O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (key of David)
O Oriens (dayspring)
O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.”
All of the Latin attributions to the coming Messiah are from the Old Testament except “Emmanuel,” which is found both in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. Matthew quotes Isaiah virtually verbatim—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”—with the exception that Matthew adds the phrase: “which being interpreted is, God with us.”
The “O Emmanuel” antiphon was traditionally sung on the night before Christmas Eve, revealing the meaning of the liturgical riddle through the completion of the acrostic.
With warmest prayers for all to have a blessed Christmas season with the anticipation of our Lord’s return.
- O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
- O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain
- O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
- O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain
- O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain
- O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain
- O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.
Psalter Hymnal (Gray)