Tuesday, December 15, 2009
O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 1)
Of all the great hymns that focus upon the Advent of Jesus Christ, the relatively ancient hymn called “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is certainly one of the greatest. The words are very old and extremely well ordered. More importantly, the words are thoroughly biblical and the theology exceedingly sound. Perhaps what is so wonderful about this hymn is the sense of expectation it produces in the congregation as it is sung. As the refrain is sung- Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel- we have a sense of looking forward to Christ’s future coming in glory also. I think we are here viewing a true masterpiece of word and music.
Let’s first consider the story of how we came to sing this hymn.
The words for this hymn are taken from an ancient chant or liturgical song. More specifically, the words of this hymn come from the seven great “O” Antiphons of the 8th Century Gregorian chant period. Some believe these words, before being set to song, were part of a prayer that dates back to the 5th Century. We know for sure, the words for O come, O come, Emmanuel are among the oldest of any hymn we sing today.
In the 8th Century through to the 12th Century, many hymns were written to be sung in an antiphonal way. A choir would sit across from each other and interchange singing verses back and forth to each other. The words of this hymn were written to be sung antiphonally. There were 7 originally, and they were written in Latin. The original Antiphons are as follows and in this exact order-
O Sapientia… (Wisdom from on high)
O Adonai… (Lord and leader of the house of Israel)
O Radix… (Root of Jesse)
O Clavis… (Key of David)
O Oriens… (Dayspring, splendor of eternal light)
O Rex… (Longed for King of the nations)
O Emmanuel.. (God With Us, our king and lawgiver)
These 7 verses form the reverse acrostic “ero cras”, meaning “I shall be with you tomorrow”. It speaks of Christ’s first Advent with an eye to His second Advent also. So, we have a timeless hymn, the words developing most likely in the 5th Century, taking more permanent form in the 8th Century, and being clearly identifiable as a regularly sung or chanted song in the 12th Century.
While ancient and profound, the hymn wasn't sung with great regularity until the mid 1800's when John Mason Neale set about the task of translating and rearranging some ancient hymns that had been lost to the church. One of his first projects was to translate the Latin lyrics for “O come, o come, Emmanuel” and arrange them for singing in a congregational tune. Neale used 5 of the 7 great “O” antiphons of the 8th Century and wrote “O come, o come, Emmanuel”. The only change he made was to move the last antiphon to the front of the hymn. This is the order we have today- just as Neale translated and arranged it for us.
What about the music? The music chosen for these magnificent words are of somewhat mysterious origins. We do know it’s a 15th Century plainsong melody, which is a common tune used for songs that could be chanted back and forth. It possess a more somber tone- a perfect blend with lyrics that speak of the suffering we endure as sinful human beings and our need for the Savior to come and rescue us from it all! A longing hope. A gripping expectation. These are the human realities and emotions this great hymn addresses.
This great hymn has come to us down through the ages because it is a quality hymn. Most commendable, without a doubt, is the lyrical content and biblical depth it possesses.
More to come...