“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
by Rob Yongue
Dec. 1, 2019
Read Isaiah 11
Isaiah 7:14 — “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”
The text for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” comes from a seven verse Latin poem that dates back to the 8th century. It was used in a call and response fashion during the vespers, or evening service.
The poem came to the attention of Anglican priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale in the mid 1800s. Neale was prevented from serving in a parish due to lung disease, but he devoted much of his life to social ministry. He founded a nursing order of Anglican nuns and helped organizations that cared for orphans and young women. In his “spare time”, he translated early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns for his fellow Anglicans.
Like the original poem, Neale’s translation from 1851 contained seven stanzas; today many modern hymnals contain only four or five. Various names for the Messiah are used in each stanza to express the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brings. English choirmaster Thomas Helmore was the first person to pair Neale’s text with the tune Veni Emmanuel. He also is said to have added the familiar refrain “Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”
British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in our United Methodist 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:
- Sapentia (Wisdom)
- Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
- Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
- Clavis David (key of David)
- Oriens (dayspring)
- Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
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.” Jesus is God with us. He has not only come in history, but he is coming again. What a reason to rejoice!
Prayer: Lord Jesus, we wait in joyful hope for you. Send us your grace this Advent season so that we can prepare for your coming. Touch our hearts with longing so that we can better love and serve you and each other. Fill us with the hope that we can be transformed by your Spirit and so help transform the world. We ask these things in the name of Jesus whose kingdom we seek. Amen.