Monday, December 14, 2015

O Come, O Come

The celebration of Christmas with music is an ancient practice, and that this tradition continues is especially remarkable in our time when tolerance of anything old is disdained and eagerness for the new is an obsession. Yet, the traditional Advent song of O Come, O Come Emmanuel has been passed down to us for at least 1,200 years, is heard in the malls and on the streets, is sung by choirs and congregations in churches, and in endless arrangements on Christmas recordings.

As early as the ninth century, the tradition was to sing one verse of this song each of the seven days during the week before Christmas. The haunting minor melody of the Gregorian chant, "plainsong," (defined as unaccompanied church music sung in unison in medieval modes and in free rhythm corresponding to the accentuation of the words, which are taken from the liturgy), was originally sung in Latin. The note of rejoicing of the refrain was added in the thirteenth century. The words incorporate the prophecies and promises of Messiah throughout the Old Testament. So we sing the Word. Here are the five verses most commonly sung today:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come! O come! Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to Thee O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them vict'ry o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuall shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanual shall come to thee, O Israel.

The promise of Messiah was given the day sin entered the world (Genesis 3:15), and the yearning of man for his deliverance has not ceased since. The haunting quality of this ancient song fills our souls to this day as we join in singing with millions who have sung it before us in the longing for His coming, rejoicing in the hope and the glorious knowledge of Emmanuel, God with us yesterday, today, and forever.

For joy,



  1. We sing the first verse of this hymn every evening before dinner when we light the candles on our Advent wreath. It is one of my very favorite family traditions.

    Also, you know Malcolm Guite's book Sounding the Seasons, yes? His sonnet interpretations of the O Antiphons are beautiful. They're also in his book Waiting on the Word, which came out last month, and which you would love (if you don't love it already). :)

    1. Kimberlee,

      What a lovely tradition. I enjoy Guite's poetry, sonnets, and have read some of those. Our lives are rich in beauty.


  2. Thank you for sharing this! We did sing one verse every week during Advent at our little Moravian church in North Carolina. It's Emma's favorite Advent hymn. She's disappointed that we're learning "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" this year - she thinks we should just sing O Come, O Come, but we already know it. LOL. Love learning the history of this beautiful hymn.

    1. Lo How a Rose is my personal favorite. There is room for many different ones and you can still sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel too.

      Merry Christmas to your family,