The advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Roman Catholic Advent liturgy. On each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah.
The text for this 8th century hymn comes from a 7 verse poem. It was used in a call and response fashion during the vespers, or evening, service. In fact, the original text created the reverse acrostic “ero cras,” which means “I shall be with you tomorrow,” and is particularly appropriate for the advent season.
In the 13th century a metrical version of five of the verses appeared on the musical scene. That version was translated into English in 1851 by J. M. Neale. Although many hymnals do not include all the 5 verses translated by Neale, each verse is an acknowledgement of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies. Each of the five verses expounds upon one of the names for the Messiah:
- “Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23) means “God with us”
- “Adonai” (Exodus 19:16) is a name for God, the giver of the law
- “Branch of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) refers to Jesus’ lineage
- “Daystar” or “Oriens” (Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78-79) is the morning star
- “Key of David” (Isaiah 22:22) again refers to Jesus’ lineage
(This listing compiled by Greg Scheer, 1994)
We sing this hymn recognizing that the Kingdom of God has already come in Christ Jesus but it is not yet here in its completion. Christ’s first coming gives us a reason to rejoice again and again. Yet the minor tone of this carol reflects our realization that all is not well with the world. So along with our rejoicing, we plead using the words of this hymn that Christ would come again to perfectly fulfill the promise that all darkness will be turned to light.
The tune for this hymn is Veni Immanuel, originally music for a Requiem Mass in a 15th century French Franciscan Processional. The chant tune was adapted to the poem by Englishman Thomas Helmore (1811-1890) and was published in Part II of his The Hymnal Noted (1854).
Here is the text of this beloved Christmas hymn. As with all carols that have been sung through the centuries, there are variations in the content of the verses. So, if the following stanzas do not include one that you are familiar with, forgive me; I believe that the majority of the verses in use today are reflected in this listing.
Please feel free to read this as you listen to an instrumental version by The Piano Guys on their album A Family Christmas.
1 O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
2 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
3 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain
4 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain
5 O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain
As we read these words and think about their meaning through the centuries of Christianity, we come to a new realization of the power of our Lord and His Word. We in this world mourn as many Christians are in physical danger and exile in today’s world. But even if we are not in physical exile, we experience the separation from society that comes when we follow the commands of our Lord which run counter to the culture around us. In short, we are different or as Peter puts it:
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: [KJV]
1 Peter 1:9. The English Standard Version translates “a peculiar people” as “a people for His own possession”. In short, although we reside in our various countries on earth, believers in Jesus Christ are citizens of another kingdom in which Jesus Christ is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
Each of the verses of this beautiful carol ask that the Lord would guide us so we could live in His kingdom that was ushered into this world by the birth of the Babe in the Manger.
While Christmas Day is past, our God is the same today as He was two days ago and even as He was before the creation of the world. He does not change and He will be with us today and through the end of time, and even past that into eternity because He is omnipresent, omniscient, the Almighty God. Time has no hold on Him and His names that applied in the millenia before the coming of the Babe in the manger still apply in the millenia since that Christmas blessing.
Take take time to praise Him as you contemplate these names of God and the incredible Gift that He has given to us both in the Babe at the manger as well as in the salvation that comes through that Babe’s atoning sacrifice on the cross thirty-three years later.
Father, I thank You that Emmanuel did come to this earth as a human Babe. I further thank You that He lived a perfect life that I cannot live, and that He took my sin upon Himself and died an atoning death on the cross of Calvary. Finally, I thank You that He conquered death and is currently alive in heaven, interceding on my behalf before Your throne. Thank You for salvation that was the very reason that He came at Christmas. Thank You that in the manger, we see the shadow of the cross, all for the saving grace extended to Your children through Jesus Christ, our Lord.