Here's an Advent Devotional about my favorite Christmas hymn:
With its haunting minor melody, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is a much-loved Advent hymn. Its lyrics come from the Advent events of the medieval Christian church. Each night, for seven days before Christmas, the church would sing one of the "Great O Antiphons"-anthems sung to a short verse.
The word "antiphon" implies that the lines of each anthem were sung alternately by two choirs sitting opposite each other in the chancel. Each antiphon featured a prayer beginning with "O Come" and including an Old Testament reference for the Messiah:
The Great O Antiphons
"O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi. . ." (O Wisdom from on high...)
"O Adonai et dux domus Israel. . ." (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel...)
"O Racix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum. . ." (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people)
"O Clavis David et sceptrum domus. . ." (O Key of David and scepter of our home...)
"O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae. . ." (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light...)
"O Rex gentium et desideratus. . ." (O longed-for King of the nations...)
"O Emmanuel, rex et legiter noster. . ." (O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver...)
Read backward as an acrostic, the first letters of these antiphons spell ero cras, which translates into a hopeful advent message: "tomorrow I shall be there."
About the twelfth century five antiphons were put together as verses of a single hymn and a chorus was added, creating the words for "O Come, O Come, Emmanual." John Mason Neale translated this hymn to English, originally beginning "Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel." A year later, he changed the opening lines to "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," the well-known words we use today.
The hymn's five antiphons include five Old Testament references to the coming Messiah, including:
Emmanuel (God with us) Isa. 7:14
Lord of Might Ex. 19:16
Rod (Branch) of Jesse Isa. 11:1, Isa. 11:10
Dayspring (Morning Star) Num. 24:17
Key of David Isa. 22:22
The other two "O Great Antiphons," less commonly sung are: Wisdom Isa. 28:29 Desire of nation Hag. 2:7
The chorus echoes the desire of Zechariah 9:9, "See, your king comes to you" and Revelation 22:20, "Amen, Come Lord Jesus." We echo the glorious last plea of the New Testament as we meditate on the names and person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us.’ Matthew 1:23
The season of Advent is often a whirl of buying gifts, decorating the tree and a non-stop succession of programs and parties. It was, however, not that way for the Monks of the Middle Ages.
In the monastery, Advent was a time of meditation on serious subjects: death, judgment, heaven and hell. And the month in which we think of Christ’s first coming was used by monks to reflect on His second coming. In the same way, this should be true for Christians today. We glance backward to Bethlehem, but we look forward to the Great White Throne, that is, eternity with God.
Our hymn has its origin in seven prose Latin sentences which were sung during medieval monastic vespers leading up to Christmas. Its usage dates all the way back to the 9th century. Each stanza (originally, the stanzas were short sentences) salutes the returning Messiah by one of the many titles ascribed to Him in Scripture.
The ancient hymnwriter refers to Jesus as "Emmanuel" and "God with us". He implores Jesus to come and end the Christian’s separation from God. "Israel", used three times in the stanzas and each time in the refrain, signifies the waiting Church. While we can experience reconciliation and friendship with God right now, the hymn longs for that perfect, completed fellowship which will be enjoyed in eternity.
Jesus is also referred to as the "Dayspring" (or the "Rising Sun"—see Luke 1:78) and is asked to remove the gloom of spiritual night and the shadows of death. Whether writing in the 9th or 21st century, these words still address the yearning of Christians everywhere for Christ’s return.
Another name for Jesus is the "Rod of Jesse" (see Isaiah 11:1). It is a term found in the King James Version of the Bible and signifies Christ’s fight to free His people from Satan, hell and the grave. It hearkens back to the time when a rod, the club used by shepherds to fight wild animals, played a significant role in defending the sheep.
This hymn is one of the oldest to be found in any Christian hymnal. It is a treasure (see Matthew 13:52) and illustrates our great debt to our spiritual ancestors.
But it is also vital for today’s Christian, who with the seeming obsession for this present world, must be reminded to prepare for the world that is to come.
"And He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead" and He will announce "the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."
Nicene Creed, 325 AD
Lyricist: Latin Hymn Lyrics Date: 1710 Translator: John Mason Neale Translation Date: 1851 Key: e minor Theme: Christ's coming, Advent, Christmas Music: Plainsong Music Date: 13th Century Tune Title: VENI EMMANUEL Arranger: Thomas Helmore Arrange Date: 1856 Meter: L.M.ref