The hymn “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel” (TLH 62; LW 31; CW 32; ; ELH 110; LSB 357) is a rendition of the medieval “O Antiphons” also called the “Greater Antiphons.” An Antiphon is a selection of Scripture and prayer chanted responsively by the officiant and assembly. The purpose of the Antiphon is to set the focus for the reading selected for that particular day of the Church year.
The O Antiphons were to be sung during Vespers one on each day seven days before the feast of the Nativity of Christ: that is, from December 17th through the 23rd. Each Antiphon focuses on a Scriptural title for Christ as He is named in Biblical prophecy and a petition to Christ to come fulfilling the promise made through that title and prophecy.
The Messianic prophecies in Isaiah form the heart of the seven antiphons, which draw particularly on Isaiah 11.
The traditional order of the seven antiphons is
(1) Sapientia: “O Wisdom” Isaiah 11:2-3,
(2) Adonai: “O Lord of Might” Isaiah 11:4-5,
(3) Radix Jesse: “O Root/Branch/Rod of Jesse” Isaiah 11:1 and 10,
(4) Clavis David: “O Key of David” Isaiah 22:22,
(5) Oriens: “O Dayspring” Isaiah 9:2,
(6) Rex Gentium: “O Desire of Nations/King of Gentiles” Isaiah 2:4; 9:6; 11:10-12,
(7) Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel” Isaiah 7:14.
When one takes first letters of the titles for Christ in the antiphons and reads them from right to left they form a Latin acrostic “Ero Cras” which means “I will be (with you) tomorrow” or “I will come tomorrow”–a thematically appropriate mnemonic.
The basic progression of themes can be understood this way: The framer of the Universe (Wisdom) Who gave the Law (Adonai) promised through David’s throne (Radix Jesse) to set free the captives of sin (Clavis David) and bring the Light of salvation to dawn (Oriens) not only on His chosen people but all nations (Rex Gentium) and dwell with us as one of us eternally (Emmanuel).
The basic petition through all the verses is an echo of the closing two passages of Scripture looking forward to the consummation of all things:
20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.”
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
The Latin text that forms the basis for the hymn dates back at least to manuscripts from the 11th century. Based on their use in an Old English poem called “The Christ” by Cynewulf the antiphons probably date from the 8th century or earlier. Amalarius of Metz (780-850) a student of Alquin wrote that the antiphon “O Key of David” was used for Alquin’s funeral in 804 (in Thurston, p. 622).
The order of the antiphons was rearranged for the hymn “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel” as we see in LW 31, ELH 110, and LSB 357 by placing the 7th antiphon first. Indeed, TLH 62 (followed by Christian Worship 23) included only four verses of the original in the order 7354. The Norwegian Synod’s Lutheran Hymnary included five verses in the order 73542. This puzzling arrangement and choice of verses came about because of the choices of the man who translated them into English.
The translator for the most widely accepted English versions of the antiphons was John Mason Neale in his 1859 Hymns Ancient and Modern where he translated only five antiphons in the order 73542 (Hymn 47, p. 67). He had previously translated these same verses in his 1851 Medieval Hymns and Sequences with the words “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel” (p. 171–172). By Neale’s time he transcribed the use of the plainsong melody called Veni Emmanuel. The Norwegian Synod’s Lutheran Hymnary used the tune St. Petersburg by Dmytri Borniansky.
God willing, on each of the next seven days of Advent, December 17 through 23 we will post each of the O Antiphons with their Scriptural sources. We hope this will be of value to your families in your devotional preparations for the Nativity of Christ.
Anglicans Online A reflection on the O Antiphons.
Burgert, Edward (1921) The Dependence of Part I of Cynewulf’s Christ Upon the Antiphonary. J. D. Milans and Sons, Washington, DC.
[Discussion on the O Antiphons in Cynewulf’s poem “Christ” in greater detail is found in pp. 55-66. Incidentally, for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien this poem of Cynewulf not only describes the O Antiphons, but lines 104-5, contain these word:
“Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended,”
“Hail Earendel brightest of angels
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.”
Dahle, John Library of Christian Hymns hymn 172 of the Lutheran Hymnary (1913).
Gree, Everard (1885) “On the words O Sapientia in the Calendar.” Archaeologia, Society of Antiquaries of London: volume 49:219-242.
Henry, H. (1911). “O Antiphons”. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 5, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11173b.htm
Polack, W.G [compiler] (1942) Handbook to The Lutheran Hymnal CPH, St. Louis, p. 50.
Staley, Vernon (1907) The Liturgical Year: An Explanation of the Origin, History & Significance of the Festival Days & Fasting Days of the English Church. A.R. Mowbray, London.
[Staley’s history of the development of Advent begins on p. 64, treating the The O Antiphons on pp. 70-71. The O Antiphons are listed with Scripture references in Appendix A, p. 219-20.]
The Hymns and Carols of Christmas: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Thurston, Herbert (1905) “The Great Antiphons, Heralds of Christmas.” The Month: A Catholic Magazine, Longman, Greens and Co, London. vol 106:616-631.
[This article has some very good historical research on the early development of Advent and the O Antiphons]