8th century tr T. A. Lacey (1853-1931)
Tune VENI EMMANUEL adapted from a French Missal by Thomas Helmore (1811-90)
A longer version of this script, plus recording, is available from email@example.com
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel,
That into exile drear is gone
Far from the face of God's dear Son.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high!
Who madest all in earth and sky,
Creating man from dust and clay:
To us reveal salvation's way.
O come, O come, Adonai,
Who in thy glorious majesty
From Sinai's mountain, clothed with awe,
Gavest thy folk the ancient law.
O come, thou Root of Jesse! Draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From those dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell, thy people save.
O come, thou Lord of David's Key!
The royal door fling wide and free;
Safeguard for us the heavenward road,
And bar the way to death's abode
O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night's lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
O come, Desire of nations! Show
Thy kingly reign on earth below;
Thou Corner-stone, uniting all,
Restore the ruin of our fall.
For many people this is the archetypal advent hymn, even though, strictly speaking it should not be sung earlier than December 17th! In this much it characterises the ‘backwards and forwards’ dichotomy that we find at this time of year as, in secular fashion we anticipate Christmas, yet while trying to maintain the traditional ecclesiastical, ‘advent’ mood of penitence in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.
This dimension of anticipation befits the Advent season. The whole world now ‘looks forward’ to Christmas, and the tide of festivity soon goes out thereafter. This year we are particularly saddened as we face a very different Advent and Christmas, with a traditional carol service in packed church almost impossible if not illegal.
In singing this ancient hymn we can be reminded that Christ comes twice – in the past and the future. And in doing so we recall those ancient prophecies on which the text is based. Enshrined as antiphons for liturgical use they flanked the singing of the Magnificat in the last days before Christmas. These special verses, recalling the prophecies associated with Mary’s acceptance of her calling to be the mother of Jesus, were added, resonating with and giving extra poignancy to the readings for the particular day.
The sequence begins with O sapiential: ‘O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence’.
The following day continues with O Adonai: ‘O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, who appearedst in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gavest him the Law in Sinai: come and deliver us with an outstretched arm’.
Then on December 19 O Radix Jesse: ‘O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the gentiles shall seek: come and deliver us, and tarry not’.
December 20 continues this theme with O Clavis David: ‘O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest, and no man shutteth, and shuttest, and no man openeth: come and bring the prisoner out of the prisonhouse, and him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death’.
December 21 is O Oriens: ‘O Dayspring, Brightness of Light Everlasting, and Sun of Righteousness: come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death’.
O Rex Gentium falls on December 22: ‘O King of the Nations, and their Desire; the Cornerstone, who makest both one: come and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay’.
The final day’s antiphon, from which we get the title of the hymn, falls on December 23, and draws on Isaiah prophesying the Virgin Birth of ‘Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14, and Matthew 1:23). ‘O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: come and save us, O Lord our God’. ‘King and Lawgiver’ comes from Isaiah 33:22.
On this last day, the acrostic buried within is revealed. Taking the first letter of the keyword and reading backwards (Emmanuel-Rex-Oriens-Clavis-Radix-Adonai-Sapientia) spells ero cras, which means ‘I shall be present tomorrow’, which is, of course, the ultimate meaning of the hymn and of the season.
These antiphons are rich in meaning and resonate with scripture. Each addresses the deity with a different name. They evolved into the hymn Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, of which various translations of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ are the surviving English versions. The first translation was made by John Henry Newman in 1836, and John Mason Neale followed suit in 1851. Mason’s version had five verses only, whereas the editors of the New English Hymnal finished the job, providing all the full complement of seven. Just as Latin antiphons served as a kind of refrain to the Magnificat, when the hymn was created, around the twelfth century, the hymn itself was given a refrain: Gaude, gaude Emmanuel, nascitur pro te, Israel’ (Rejoice, rejoice…). Thus we have a set of refrains, with a refrain!
The tune itself is derived from a French mediaeval plainsong melody, which was possibly used as a tune for Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy), the opening part of a sung eucharist. This version of the tune was arranged by Thomas Helmore, an Anglican clergyman, who helped revive interest in plainsong in the nineteenth century. In 1966 the oldest surviving edition was found in the archives of a French Franciscan convent. Dating from the fifteenth century, it was allied to the Requiem text Libere Me, Domine. Today we usually sing the verses in unison, honouring plainsong use, but add rich harmony for the refrains. This may represent something of the complex blend that makes up a modern Advent: the simple, penitential message of a promised saviour, who came and will come again; combined with the richness and splendour of Christmas, beckoning us from every shop window and online carol service as we advance further into December.
O come Emmanuel, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Dayspring on high, and reveal yourself as Lord of all nations. To you we call, Lord Jesus, whose name is above all names, rejoicing in the salvation that you have won for us by your humble birth, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. May you reign in glory, in heaven and on earth, now and always. Amen.