The mysterious and melodic flow of the the Christmas hymn “O Come O Come Immanuel” is musically attractive as well as lyrically beautiful. But did you know the song is actually a completion of a Christmas “riddle?”
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
The words of the song were originally in Latin, and dates back to monastic life over 1,000 years ago. Specifically, the singing of the “O antiphons” would begin seven days before Christmas Eve in the monasteries, in expectation of Christmas Eve. And it was the “O Emmanuel” antiphon that would be sung lastly on the eve of Christmas Eve.
British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons: “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:
O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
O radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
O clavis David (key of David)
O Oriens (dayspring)
O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
Incidentally, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon reads SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic “Ero cras” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” Essentially, the “O Emmanuel” antiphon revealed the meaning of the liturgical riddle through the completion of the acrostic.
Back to the hymn’s development. The Latin metrical form followed, but it wasn’t until the 19th-century that Rev. John Mason Neale, a British anglican priest serving in Africa, discovered the Latin hymn in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, along with a refrain. The tune that went with the text was from a 15th-century French Franciscan convent of nuns ministering in Portugal. Rev. Neale, a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, easily translated the Latin into English, even including it in his 1851 collection of hymns.
Remarkably, what we today know as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is the result of centuries of musical development and translation, a hauntingly rich song with theological depth and biblical truths. And it fits so perfectly at this time of the year because it does exactly what Matthew does in his account of Jesus’ birth in chapters 1 and 2 — shows Jesus to be the final and ultimate fulfillment of all that God has promised.