Article

History of Hymns: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

by Dr. C. Michael Hawn

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
9th-Century Latin hymn
The United Methodist 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 (dayspring)
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 son, 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, revealing the meaning of the liturgical riddle through the completion of the acrostic.

John Mason Neale

Neale translated the opening line as “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel” for his volume of translations, Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. It appeared in The Hymnal Noted, Part 2 in 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 Sister Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry) 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, which continues to be employed in many hymnals. The block chords of the original musical 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, retranslated portions of the hymn to reflect more accurately the original Latin.

Regular readers of this column will note that many hymns found in our hymnals transcend centuries, cultures, translations and many variations until we find them in the form that we sing. 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 at least 11 centuries old. 


C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal, Advent and Christmas Music