O Come Emmanuel

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“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is my favorite Christmas hymn.

Why? Maybe it is because of its historical roots. Originally a Latin hymn, it is over 1,400 years old, dating back to the 8th or 9th century. It originated as an antiphone sung by monks all across Europe as a part of their Advent liturgy.

Antiphones, from the Greek “anti” meaning opposite and “phone” meaning voice, were the dominate musical style for the Western Church for nearly a thousand years. This musical style was first introduced into the Christian Church by Ignatius of Antioch (who died in 107 AD) as a way for the congregation to sing the Psalms — the primary hymn book for the people of God for 2,500 years. It gave the congregation a way to experience the power of the rhythmic parallels of Hebrew poetry, and by the Middle Ages it took the form of Gregorian chant.

The Latin metrical form of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was composed sometime in the 12th century as the capstone to the great cycle of hymns called the “O Antiphons” or “The Great O’s.” These were a series of hymns designed to progressively focus one’s attention on the coming of Christ by interweaving a complex series of Old Testament titles for the Messiah into a series of 7 songs. One was sung each day leading up to Christmas.

The first lines of each song are 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)
O Emmanuel

The songs were intentionally written so that if you took the first letter of the Messianic title it would spell SARCORE, which when spelled backwards is Ero Cras, meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” The “O Emmanuel” antiphon would be sung on Christmas Eve.

We are not sure exactly when the songs fell out of use, or how they were recovered. (As with all things historical, the story is a bit complicated.) There are several versions of the hymn, but the oldest English version, and my personal favorite, comes from the famous Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) in which John Neale translated and reworked the seven antiphones into the one hymn entitled Veni Emmanuel — “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

But why do I love this hymn?

It is not marked by the explosive exuberance of “Joy to the World,” or the haunting beauty of “O Holy Night,” yet it is my favorite. I love it because it is both hopeful and haunting, mellow and majestic. It is aching articulated. It is longing made musical.

And it perfectly encapsulates and articulates the duel longing of Advent. It brings to mind the longing of the people of God before Christ came the first time, and it articulates the longing of the people of God as we await Jesus’ coming the second time.

So, as we sing it this year, remember. Remember that you are joining in a song that has been sung by God’s people for over a thousand years —expressing a sentiment that has been felt by God’s people for over 4,000 years. And as we sing it this year, remember that each of the titles of Jesus has been skillfully interwoven to kindle hope. Remember that Jesus is:

Emmanuel (Isaiah 8:8). “God with us.” He will pay the ransom that only a God-man can pay.

The Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Springing from a dead stump, He will free His people, by death and resurrection, from Satan’s tyranny, and make them free forever.

The Day-spring (Luke 1:78). The dawn of God’s kingdom. He will be the light of the world, and banish the hopelessness of darkness.

The Key of David (Isaiah 22:22).He rescues us from hell, locks the door behind us, unlocks the door of heaven, and brings us home.

The Desire of Nations (Haggai 2:7). He will draw the ransomed from every people and make them a kingdom of peace.

As we sing this song this Christmas, be drawn into the joyful, victorious refrain, Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel, and be humbled by the longing that reminds us that even though the Dayspring has dawned, we still wait.

This hymn beautifully reminds us, as John Piper says, that even though “the final blood is shed. The debt is paid. Forgiveness is purchased. God’s wrath is removed. Adoption is secured. The down payment is in the bank. The first fruits of harvest are in the barn. The future is sure. The joy is great. But the end is not yet.”

No, it is not. And until it is, we join with all God’s people and sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”


This article was written by Pastor Dr. Ben Bailie of Grace Lake Nona, and first appeared in Grace Magazine.