Rejoice! The history and hope of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

By Aaron Lambert

You enter your parish church and purple adorns the altar. The Advent candle stands ready to be lit. There is a somber yet anticipatory ambience about the nave, punctuated by the cooling weather outside. The priest begins to process in, and the familiar melody of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” fills the air as the voices of the congregation echo off the walls and rise, carried by the incense as prayers to the heavens above.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, and in the Catholic Church, these are all clear signs that the Advent season is here, that season of joyful expectation in which we await Our Lord’s shocking arrival into the world as a tiny babe, nestled in His Blessed Mother’s arms.

While the physical and visual elements of the holidays capture our immediate attention, it is the music that captivates our imaginations and draws us ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation. And while there are many songs and hymns that have become indelibly linked to the Advent and Christmas seasons, there’s something quite singular about “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

The hymn itself is an adaptation of the “O Antiphons,” a tradition within the Church dating back to the eighth century in which the faithful chant special verses to accompany Mary’s Magnificat canticle in the seven days leading up to Christmas. The hymn was always sung in Latin with the title “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” until 1851, when an Anglican priest and scholar by the name of John Mason Neale gave us the first English translation of the treasured song. His text slightly differed from the version that’s sung in churches throughout the world today, but its essence was the same.

As for that beautifully haunting melody, no one actually knows who composed it. What is known, however, is that it is based upon a tune found in a 15th-century French missal that was discovered in a library in Lisbon, Portugal. The melody was solemnly chanted during funeral processions as the deceased was carried from the funeral Mass to the burial site. It seems only fitting, and perhaps even providential, that a melody once sung to mark the end of someone’s life was unearthed to become one we sing to mark the beginning of the liturgical year — a new spiritual life, as it were, gifted to us in the form of Christ Himself.

This image of being brought out of death and into new life — or, to put it another way, out of bondage and into freedom — is reflected most aptly in the lyrics of the hymn. The first verse is the most well-known, and indeed, suffices on its own to capture the spirit of the Christmas season; however, it’s worth taking a deeper look at the subsequent verses to fully reveal the profound beauty of this song.

Each verse contains clear allusions to the coming of Christ and His victory over sin and death. The aforementioned “O Antiphons” serve as the basis for each verse, and in the original Latin, each antiphon contains a different name for Christ: Sapentia (wisdom), Adonai (Hebrew word for God), Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse), Clavis David (key of David), Oriens (dayspring), Rex gentium (king of the Gentiles) and Emmanuel. All of these names are from the Old Testament.

Interestingly, each of these names were deliberately chosen to reveal a hidden meaning within the “O Antiphons.” When the first letters of each of these words are combined, it spells the acronym SARCORE. When read backwards, the letters reveal a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” which translates to “I will be present tomorrow.”

Although the most familiar version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” doesn’t utilize all of these titles of Christ over the course of the song, the relationship between the hymn and the antiphons are readily apparent. What’s more, this is one of those rare cases where the new version may be better than the old. The poetic lyricism of each verse evokes a time in history when the people of Israel longed for the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people. You can feel that deep desire in the words, and it is a desire that Christians in Advent share with the people of Israel. We yearn to feel Christ in our midst, who will put death’s dark shadows to flight and close the path to misery.

Thanks be to God, we know this promise has been fulfilled and that Christ is indeed among us as Emmanuel; he hears our cries and he answers them in full. So, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior at Christmas, who has come to ransom his people, we have but one task before us that’s befitting of the coming of the King of Kings and one that has been echoed throughout the ages: Rejoice! ■

Aaron Lambert is a writer from Denver.