Connecting with Carols | “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

This Advent season, we will add to our time of worship the wonderful melodies of selected Christmas carols. While not always viewed as worship music, these carols give us the opportunity to respond to the birth of Jesus with joy-filled celebration and gratitude. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we will provide you with some explanation and meaning behind the lyrics we will be singing. Join us as we celebrate this special season

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
O come, o come, Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
who mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appears.  
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.
O come Thou Wisdom from on high
and order all things far and nigh.
To us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in her ways to go.

This beloved Christmas hymn is deep-rooted in early church tradition. The verses find their origin in a series of early church chants known as the “O Antiphons,” which date back to the early 6th century. These ancient chants are still sung during the Advent season in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. The O Antiphons were turned into a metrical Latin poem sometime in the 12th century, but it was nearly 700 years before the text was translated into English and set to the tune we now recognize. Since this initial English translation in 1851, the hymn text has undergone several alterations, yet its central message remains strikingly similar to the source from which it came more than 1000 years before. So what is this central message, and how is it that this message still resounds with us today?

There are seven O Antiphons, and each one highlights a unique title for the Messiah: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun (or Morning Star), King of the Nations, and Emmanuel. Each of these titles comes from the Messianic prophecies in the book of Isaiah. It is perhaps difficult for us to understand the context of these prophecies—after all, we live in a time when these prophecies have already been fulfilled in Jesus. But what did it mean to live in anticipation of this fulfillment?

To find the answer we go back further still, to the Old Testament and King David. The nation of Israel had finally entered and seized the Promised Land (a land promised to them centuries earlier when God made a covenant with Abraham). God expanded the Abrahamic covenant when He made a promise to King David: “I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. He is the one who will build a house–a temple–for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12-13) However, the kingdom of Israel was eventually broken apart, and it seemed the covenant with David was left unfulfilled. Israel began to develop a deep longing for the fulfillment of the promise, a king from the line of David, who would reign over them forever.

The prophets remembered the covenant and prophesied its fulfillment. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the king who would ultimately fulfill this covenant, in Isaiah 7:14: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).” For hundreds of years, in brokenness, exile, and captivity, Israel waited and waited for their promised king. Suddenly the lyrics to this song begin to make a little more sense: “O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.”

Now we return to our O Antiphons, each a title for the Messiah, and each conveying the longing desire that Israel lived in. “Come Emmanuel! Come Rising Sun, come Dayspring! Come Wisdom!” And when we move forward to our beloved Christmas hymn, we are reminded of something more: “Rejoice!” Surely Israel had cause to rejoice in her King, finally arrived. Yet we also have reason to rejoice. This King Jesus redeemed not only Israel to Himself—He extended His redemption even further. “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” (Ephesians 2:14)

This truly is the central message that resounds throughout all of history. We see it in Abraham, the nation of Israel, King David, the prophets, Jesus Christ, the early church, the O Antiphons, and in our Christmas hymns. Emmanuel. God is with us. Let the truth of that central message bring meaning to your Christmas carols and celebrations this season.

– Jonathan Torres