Sacred Song Story: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
By Cheryl Arnold
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is an ancient Advent hymn dating back to the 8th century. Originally written in Latin and sung in monasteries, it was translated in 1851 by Anglican priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale. His parish ministry was limited by his chronic lung disease, so he instead used some of his time to translate early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns for all the feast and fast days of the church year. When he worked on this hymn, he noted, “This Advent hymn is little more than a versification of some of the Christmas antiphons commonly called the O’s.”
What is an antiphon? It is a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle. During Advent, monks would sing the O antiphons on the seven days before Christmas Eve, when they would then sing the eighth antiphon “O Virgin of virgins” before and after Mary’s canticle, “The Magnificat” (Luke 1:46b-55). These O antiphons are rich in meaning with references from both the Old and New Testaments. The seven O antiphons leading up to Christmas Eve are:
· O Sapentia (Wisdom)
· O Adonai (Hebrew for “My Lord”)
· O Radix Jesse (Stem or Root of Jesse)
· O Clavis David (Key of David)
· O Oriens (Dayspring)
· O Rex gentium (King of the Nations)
· O Emmanuel (God With Us)
If you take the first letter of the second letter of each antiphon, you have an acrostic spelling of SARCORE. When read backwards, the letters form the Latin words “ero cras,” translated as “Tomorrow, I will be (there).” This reverse acrostic reinforces the dual themes of Advent: the birth of a Savior and his anticipated second coming. It also suggests the eternal nature of Jesus (“I will be”), since the word “there” is implied but not actually part of the direct translation.
Other translators and hymnwriters have made their own changes to the text, and some have even rearranged the stanzas or omitted some stanzas entirely. It has been sung with various melodies, but today we know it best with a tune called Veni Emmanuel. Thomas Helmore paired this tune with the text in an 1851 hymnal, with a note that the tune was “From a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon.” It was eventually traced back to a 15th century funeral processional hymn sung by French Franciscan nuns.
You can find O Come, O Come Emmanuel on page 56 in the Episcopal hymnal, and many churches will sing this hymn throughout Advent. Some churches will also use it as a framework for services of Advent lessons and carols, in which each antiphon is paired with the corresponding stanza from the hymn as well as a prophetic text from the Old Testament, a corresponding fulfillment text from the New Testament, and a music selection. Finding an online recording of one of these lessons and carols services based on the O antiphons would be a wonderful way to enrich your Advent experience.