“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…” is probably the oldest Christmas carol still sung today. The original version dating back to the 9th century was sung in Latin and used in formal Catholic mass. John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest, translated the Latin chant into English and it was published in the 1850’s. The music is a 15th century processional from French Franciscan nuns.
This carol (Hymn 56) is sung the week before Christmas with a different verse each day. The phrases come from the O Antiphons that remind us of the Old Testament views of the Messiah. We will sing this hymn Advent 3 as we remember our griefs and losses and anticipate the coming of Jesus.
The intro and last verse is an appeal for the appearance of a Savior (“O come, O come…”) that God has promised (“Emmanuel…” meaning “God is with us”). The Savior will free the Christian world, represented by the phrase “…captive Israel…” from sin, a subtle forecasting of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.
“O come, O come Adoni…” or “O come thou wisdom from on high…” centers the source of true wisdom is from God which he passed to humanity through the 10 Commandments given on Mount Sinai. These are the laws of how people should act towards God and others.They will spread worldwide to bring peace and understanding to all people (Isaiah 11:4-5 and 33:22).
“O come, thou branch of Jesse…” and “…Key of David…” remind us of the Savior’s lineage and his role as a King. He has power to defeat Satan and bring eternal life to all who follow him.
“O come thou Dayspring on high…” presents the powerful image of a morning star that will enlighten the world and cast out darkness. This star becomes the iconic image of Christmas found on decorated tree tops, Christmas cards and church scenes. This star (Christ) will enlighten the world and cast out darkness. As Malachi (4:2) promises “the sun of righteous will rise with healing in its wings.”
“O come, Desire of nations…” reiterates the role of God and Christ to bring peace to the world. The powerful words of Counselor, Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:5) reiterates the importance of his birth, his teachings and then his ultimate sacrifice. It reinforces the differences between an Earthly King wishing for wealth and power and an Ideal King who seeks justice and caring.
With thanks to Suzanne Barnes for this beautiful reflection.