Songs of Christmas: O Come O COme Emmanuel


Back in 2012, I decided to use the blog posts leading up to Christmas to explore the stories behind and meanings of various songs we sing in the Christmas season. That year, I examined The First Noel, Angels From the Realms of Glory, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night as well as The Twelve Days of Christmas and We Three Kings. It was so much fun, I decided to do it again last year, posting about O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Away in a Manager along with the less commonly known Who Is He in Yonder Stall.

Since there are many other songs I haven’t looked at yet, I’m doing another “Songs of Christmas” series this Advent in which I’ll explore songs from different places and times. It seems fitting to kick off with one of the oldest Christmas hymns: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

The Story
When we sing this song, we go on a journey back to the monasteries of the 8th and 9th century through 19th century England and 15th century France. 

The song’s origins reside in the evening prayers of the monasteries in the 8th and 9th century, as they recite something called the “O Antiphons” in the seven days leading up to Christmas before and after singing the Magnificat (Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55). These chants would start with a biblical title for Christ, discuss that title, ask for him to come, and then expand that ask by further requesting Jesus to do something. The seven titles used in these Antiphons were: Wisdom, Adonai (Lord), Root of Jesus, Morningstar (Dayspring), Key of David, King of Nations, and Emmanuel.

Over time, these Antiphons were adapted into a Latin hymn. Significant variations from the original Antiphons in a 1710 Latin version include featuring only five of the seven titles (omitting Wisdom and King of Nations), changing the order so that it begins rather than ends with the line about Emmanuel, and a refrain after each verse. This Latin version was then translated into English in 1851 by John Mason Neale (1818-1856), an Anglican priest who had an interest not just in studying medieval hymns and texts, but also making them more readily available in the Church of England. (He also translated the hymns “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” as well as the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”). Neale’s initial translation of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” however, is a little different from the version you are likely familiar with, as it begins each verse with “Draw nigh” rather than “Come” and says that this figure “Shall be born for thee, O Israel!” rather than “Shall come to thee.” The more familiar phrases come from his 1861 revision. The Presbyterian pastor Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1854) wrote additional verses in 1916 that include the two Antiphons that were not found in Neale’s version, though it seems like Coffin’s verse then only featured the two missing stanzas and the opening stanza. At times, you will find all seven verses together while at other times you will find only some of the verses and in different order.

Like many hymns and Christmas carols, the lyrics and the music for this song have different origins. Thomas Helmore paired Neale’s original translation with what he said was a French song in 1851, and this pairing became so popular that the tune itself has become known as “Veni Emmanuel” (Latin for “Come Emmanuel”). However, little was known about the origin of this tune until the 1960’s when a British musicologist named Mary Berry found a French manuscript of chants for burials from the 15th century with this tune (called there, in translation, “Goodbye Sweet Jesus to All”). This background makes sense of the fact that this song is a lot more mellow and reflective than many other Christmas songs. 

The Song
Of the seven verses, I was only familiar with five of them (four of them by Neale: Emmanuel, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David; and one by Coffin: Desire of Nations), but as I read and reflected upon all of them, I realized that they are all so rich in meaning.

Each of the opening lines draws upon a biblical image of Jesus, some of which are obscure. The most well known is the one the song opens with, as Jesus is called Emmanuel, alluding to the promise of Isaiah 8:8 and its fulfillment at Jesus’s birth (Matthew 1:23); this is a reminder that God is with us. The title “Rod of Jesse” is a reference to Jesus’s lineage from the line of King David (whose father was named Jesse) and looks back to Isaiah 11:1, which points out that the dead stump of this line will produce new life. The “Dayspring” or “Morningstar” title draws upon Malachi 4:2 and Luke 1:78-79 in that Jesus comes to bring light to the darkness. The language of “Key of David” appears in Isaiah 22:22 and Revelation 3:7, pointing once again to Jesus’s link to David and also his power and authority. The “Desire of Nations” is seen as an allusion to Haggai 2:7, which speaks about the nations bringing their treasures (translated “desires” in the King James Version) to God at the last day. The title of “Wisdom” points to Jesus as the personification of wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), and the title of “Lord” or “Adonai” applies this title of God to Jesus and points to him as the one who gives the law. The various titles in the verses reveal the depth of the riches that are found in Jesus and who he is and invites us to continue to dig more into the Bible to discover images we may have overlooked before.

The song also reminds us over and over again why Jesus has come and what he has done, as it shows both the problems God’s people faced and the way Jesus addressed it. God’s people were living in darkness as they were lonely in exile, so they needed God’s presence with them. The title Emmanuel shows that God addressed His lonely people to assure them that God is present with them. This was not their only problem, as they would also need to be saved from the depths of hell and the grave; the rod of Jesse shows victory over those forces, as life comes from death. The Key of David shows that God has opened wide the heavenly home for His people, keeping them safe while also barring the way to death. God’s people were in darkness, but the bright and morning star (Dayspring) brings comfort, dispelling the shadows and turning darkness into light. The divisions between nations that exist because of sin are overcome through the Desire of Nations, as he binds in one the hearts of all mankind as the King of Peace. As the wisdom of God who has ordered the word, Jesus shows us what way we should go, and as the Lord who gave the Law, He leaves His people in wonder and awe. 

We don’t need to sing all of the verses to tap into its significance and value for us today, as this song connects us back to the people of Israel as they waited for the Messiah to come. We now wait for him to come again and to bring in fullness all His promises. This is a song of waiting – both longing for Jesus to come and make all things right and calling for it to happen soon. In many ways, it is an expanded reflection on some of the last words of the Bible, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Let us pray those words through this song while also rejoicing in the promise that we know is true – Emmanuel will come – because he has come to ransom his people and rescue us from our sins, opening wide the gates of heaven and bringing comfort and light even in the shadows of the night.  

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