It’s an Advent standard that has ancient roots, yet scholars still debate the exact origins of the familiar “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
“If you look at the reference books, the honest ones will tell you that the origins are somewhat obscure,” said Vincent Lenti, a member of the piano faculty at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.
Other books attribute the hymn’s original Latin lyrics to an anonymous 12th-century monk, who may or may not have existed, he added.
What is certain is that “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was based on the “O Antiphons” or “Great Antiphons,” which were used before the canticle of Mary in the evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. These antiphons were said during the seven nights before Christmas Eve, from Dec. 17-23.
The hymn is most appropriate to sing during the third or fourth week of Advent, said Father Frank Lioi, pastor of St. Mary Church in Auburn.
“The first half of (Advent) is focused on the end time, and the second half of it is focused on the historical coming of Christ,” Father Lioi said.
The roots of the antiphons are ancient, said Father Daniel McMullin, director of Cornell Catholic Community, who noted that a fifth-century monk named Boethius is the first to make a reference to them. Lenti noted that the antiphons were widely used by the eighth century.
Like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the antiphons start out by addressing the Messiah using a variety of names or titles taken from Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecies.
“All of the titles in it are all scriptural allusions to Christ,” noted Father McMullin, who holds a doctorate from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.
The Great Antiphons, in order, were O Sapientia, or wisdom; O Adonai, which is the Hebrew word for God; O Radix Jesse, the root of Jesse; O Clavis David, key of David; O Oriens, rising sun or morning star; O Rex Gentium, King of the Nations or Desire of the Nations; and O Emmanuel, God with us.
If the titles for the Messiah are listed in reverse order, Father McMullin noted, the first letters of the Latin names spell out Ero Cras, or “Tomorrow I will come.”
Lenti said the order of the antiphons was shuffled at some point, and the Emmanuel stanza was placed first rather than last in the hymn.
The origin of the tune is very obscure, Lenti said, noting that it is possible the tune could have been matched with the lyrics in the 14th century. Others attribute the tune to a 15th-century funeral processional used by French Franciscan nuns.
“One theory is that it is an adaptation of an ancient chant tune,” he said.
Lenti noted that an English version of the Latin hymn “Veni Veni Emmanuel” was written by 19th-century hymnologist John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who was part of a movement that revived interest in old Latin hymns.
“We still enjoy the fruits of his translation into English,” said Lenti, noting that it is unclear whether the priest was responsible for changing the order of the antiphons such that “Emmanuel” came first.
Some contemporary interfaith scholars have faulted the hymn because they contend it paints a picture of Israel that is not in keeping with the Second Vatican Council’s view of Catholic-Jewish relations. Some critics point out the negative connotation of Israel in such lyrics as “Ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear.” Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning has revised lyrics to the hymn on its Web site at www.bc.edu to address these concerns.
However, there are multiple interpretations of the original lyrics. Jean Leicht, music director of Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta, points out that in the hymn, Israel could be seen as a symbol for the whole Christian community.
During Advent, Christians should keep in mind the historical context in which Old Testament prophets were speaking, according to the 1988 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching.”
“The lectionary readings from the prophets are selected to bring out the ancient Christian theme that Jesus is the ‘fulfillment’ of the biblical message of hope and promise, the inauguration of the ‘days to come’ described, for example, by the daily Advent Masses, and on Sundays by Isaiah in cycle A and Jeremiah in cycle C for the First Sunday of Advent,” the statement says. “This truth needs to be framed very carefully. Christians believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has come (see Luke 4:22), but also know that his messianic kingdom is not yet fully realized. The ancient messianic prophecies are not merely temporal predictions but profound expressions of eschatological hope.”
Lenti noted that minor changes also have been made to the song’s lyrics over time. One translation changed the phrase “O Come, King of Nations” to “O Come, Desire of Nations,” he said.
“We have a tendency today in hymn translations to avoid images of royalty,” said Lenti, who noted that an image of a king may seem a remote notion to modern listeners and performers.
Another change was omitting the use of the word “Adonai,” a Hebrew word for God.
“One translation I was looking at said, ‘O Come, Great Lord,'” he said.
Leicht pointed out that the hymn’s descriptions of Christ can help inform our understanding of him. For example, she said “O Day Spring” refers to Christ casting out darkness and bringing enlightenment, and “O Key of David” refers to the newborn king having the key to salvation.
“(The hymn) urges the world to accept and worship the king who fulfills God’s greatest promise to his children,” Leicht said. “For some, ‘O Come O Come Emanuel’ signifies this time of eager anticipation for the birth of the savior.”