Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel

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.  

nativity-from-the-alamo-in-san-antonio
Nativity depiction from a San Antonio mission

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.

Refrain:
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.

SILENT NIGHT

Anyone who has stood outside while snow is falling has heard “the sound of silence”. 

big-snow-in-chicago-1967
Chicago big snow in 1967

The blanket of snow simply muffles sounds that ordinarily would be heard. 

snow-driveway-and-yard
Front yard and drive covered in white blanket of snow.

It is a silence that is palpable, beautiful and spell-binding.

snowy-tranquility-c
Snowy tranquility.

That snowy silence was the impetus behind the Christmas carol “Silent Night” which is a staple in the Christmas collection of carols for thousands of churches.  Even secular groups will sing the song because of its incredible imagery, beautiful lyrics and soul-calming theme. 

Here is the story behind the creation of this beautiful Christmas classic.

In 1818, Josef Mohr was assistant pastor of the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg in the Austrian Alps.  He was in a meditative mood as he walked home after a Christmas presentation in a friend’s home.  He walked along the longer path to his home which took him to the top of a hill.

Surrounded by the majestic Alps, from his vantage point over the village, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village.  He experienced the awesome silence of the night as he looked at the shining scene below him that looked rather like a Christmas card.  As he pondered on the scene, he remembered a poem that he had written a couple of years earlier which described the night when angels came to the shepherds on a hillside to announce the birth of the Messiah.

While Mohr had words that he believed would be a good Christmas carol for the congregation to sing at the Christmas Eve service, he did not have any music.  So, he went to see the church organist, Franz Gruber.  In short, Gruber had to have a melody that could be sung that evening with a guitar since the organ was out of commission.  Gruber composed the music for Mohr’s poem and they sang it that evening without the organ. The congregation loved the carol, and it is reported that many of the people had tears in their eyes from its beautiful rendition.

Later, the organ builder came to repair the St. Nicholas church organ, and, when completed, he asked Gruber to play a tune to test the repair.  Gruber sat down at the organ and began playing the melody he had written for Mohr’s Christmas poem.  Struck by the beauty of the piece, the organ builder took copies of the music and words of “Silent Night” back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing.  There, two well-known families of singers, the Rainers and the Strassers, heard the song.  They were so thrilled with “Silent Night” that both groups put the new carol into their Christmas season repertoire.   

The rest, as they say, is history.  The carol swept the world and now it is sung in over 300 languages worldwide. 

The words of the carol are beautiful but their power comes from the fact that the carol is also theologically sound, quite a powerful combination!  In the next post, we will examine how theologircally sound this wonderful Christmas carol is.  In the meantime, Here is a rendition of the carol by The Piano Guys in their album “A Family Christmas”.

May the blanketing silence of snow cover you, whether literally or figuratively, so that you experience the peace that our Savior brings to your heart and soul even in the hectic days of the Christmas season.  The Psalmist says it this way:  

Be still and know that I am God.

Psalm 46:10.  Perhaps listening to Silent Night will get you into the stillness mode.  Do whatever it takes to let yourself “Be still”. You will be glad you did and your relationship with your Father will grow stronger this Christmas season.

Father, help me to keep my eyes on You and Your gift to us, the Babe in the manger who became our Sacrifice on the Cross and is now our Savior in Heaven.  I pray that my soul would rest in Your peace despite the calendar demands and obligation.  Give me the grace to “Be still”, even when chaos reigns around me, all this is through the power and love of Your Son, Jesus Christ, my Savior.