Hymns & Songs

The ‘O’ Antiphons: Hope for Christ’s return

Nov 2014    

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
(UMH 211)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. R

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. R

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them

that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave. R

O come, Thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heav’nly home;
make safe the way that leads on high
that we no more have cause to sigh. R

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight. R

O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease

and fill the world with heaven’s peace. R

Text: Author unknown, 9th century Latin. Public Domain

‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ is an Advent hymn that is a staple in the season’s repertoire. Originally in Latin, this hymn entered the Roman liturgy in the 9th century. It was used as an antiphon to the Magnificat during Vespers. In the 12th century, the text was set in a hymn form; the “Rejoice” refrain was added then.

As Advent emphasises the coming of Christ, the word “O” signifies the hope for Christ’s return. The hymn was sung over seven days before Christmas. Stanza 1 was sung on 17 Dec, stanza 2 on 18 Dec, and so on until 23 Dec.

Each “O” antiphon has a name for the coming Messiah that can be found in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament: Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23), Wisdom (Isaiah 11:2; 1 Cor. 1:30), Lord of Might (Deut. 10:17; 1 Tim. 6:15-16), Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1, 10; Romans 15:12), Key of David (Isaiah 22:22; Rev. 3:7), Dayspring from on high or Bright morning star (Numbers 24:17; Rev. 22:16), and Desire of Nations (Jeremiah 10:7; Rev. 15:4). The “Rejoice” refrain declares the coming of the Redeemer as referred to in Isaiah 59:20.

This hymn entered the United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) in 1935 and was translated into English by John Mason Neale in 1851. The original Latin text nascetur pro te, Israel was translated into English as “shall come to you”. A more accurate meaning would be “shall be born to you”. Thus, the original Latin text celebrated the first coming of Christ. The English translation allows us to celebrate both the first and the second coming of Christ.

The tune VENI EMMANUEL was originally music for a Requiem Mass (Mass for the departed) in the 15th century. It was adapted in 1854 by Thomas Helmore, an Anglican priest. Helmore interlined the English translation of the stanza and the refrain with the chant melody. The marriage of text and tune was perfect!

The stanzas are meant to be sung in unison and the refrain in harmony. The hymn may be sung in full or stanzas may be assigned for the four Advent Sundays.

• Brink, Emily R. and Bert Polman, eds. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Michigan: CRC Publications, 1998), pp. 475-477.
• Westermeyer, Paul. Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005), p. 32-33.
• Young, Carlton R. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 505 – 506.

Judith Mosomos is Acting Director of Worship and Church Music at the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.


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