Christ in Christmas Songs
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
As the first week of Advent draws to a close, that holiday staple, Christmas music, has been ever-present.
Favorite musicians sing of the expected Savior, three kings, glad tidings, family gatherings, mistletoe and holly, or being knocked over by reindeer. Every year there are more singers turning to Christmas music, and this year even Bob Dylan has joined the mix.
At their best, these songs bring us into the Christmas spirit, filling our hearts with joy and love as we wait in anticipation of Jesus’ birth.
One of these classics, the solemn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” tells of the Hebrews in the sixth century, captive in Babylon, waiting for a Messiah to “ransom captive Israel.”
The hymn, believed to have its origins in the Roman Catholic Church in the 12th century. It began as a series of Antiphons sung in response to psalms, or to Vespers, evening prayer, in the last days of Advent.
Written in the Catholic Latin text (“Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”), each antiphon calls the Savior by a different name: Emmanuel, Lord of Might, rod of Jesse (referencing Jesus’ descending from the house of King David, son of Jesse), Day Spring, and Key of David.
The words reference specific Bible passages, heralding the coming of a savior, such as Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was originally sung in plainsong, or chant, the earliest form of Church singing.
In the 19th century, many Anglican ministers and scholars were rediscovering Ancient Greek, Latin, and German hymns and translating them into English. One of these was a priest and scholar by the name of John Mason Neale, born in London in 1818, who translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Neale is also translator of the hymns “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” and “Art Thou Weary?” As well, he was the lyricist for the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas.”
Although the lyrics were originally for the initial coming of the Lord, today, we wait for the second coming, where he will conquer death and bring us all new life. Until then, we pray, as in the lyrics to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” that he “open wide our heavenly home/make safe the way that leads on high,/and close the path to misery.”