History of Hymns: Advent hymn harkens back to ninth century

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
9th-Century Latin hymn
UM Hymnal
, No. 211

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.

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
O Rex genitium
(King of the Gentiles)
O Emmanuel

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 song, 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, revealed through the completion of the acrostic and the meaning of the liturgical riddle.

John Mason Neale

For Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, Neale translated the opening line as “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.” The hymn appeared in The Hymnal Noted, Part 2 (1854) with a tune supplied by Thomas Helmore entitled VENI EMMANUEL. The heading in this hymnal stated: “From a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon.” Scholars have not been able to locate the French missal, but musicologist Mary Berry (1917-2008) located the tune in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, identifying it as a 15th-century “processional” for French Franciscan nuns.

The famous Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) used Neale’s revised translation, one that continues to be employed in many hymnals. The block chords of the original musical setting were eventually replaced with more freely flowing plainsong settings.

There are numerous textual variations in many hymnals including even the order of the stanzas. Laurence Hall Stookey, recently retired worship professor at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., retranslated portions of the hymn in order to reflect more accurately the original Latin.

Once again, regular readers of this column will note that many hymns found in our hymnals are modified gradually over the centuries through cultural migrations and translations until we find them in the form that we sing today. With this hymn, the essence of the original Latin text remains. By singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with the antiphons interspersed, Christians today may participate in a sacred Advent ritual that is many centuries old.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.


Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
Notify of
%d bloggers like this: