O Come, O come, Emmanuel!

'O' Antiphons
'O' Antiphons

O Come, O come, Emmanuel!

Got any ‘O’s?
No, not ‘O’s, ‘O’s!
So says Ronnie Barker in that immortal, voted funniest sketch ever from the Two Ronnies of 1976.
Yes – 1976.
And, yes actually, I have got some ‘O’s.
Seven ‘O’s in fact.
And great ‘O’s they are too.
No, not two ‘O’s – seven ‘O’s.
And yes, I even have four candles.
4 Advent Candles…
Well, lots more, in fact…

And the seven ‘O’s I’ve got, are the seven advent antiphons – the Great ‘O’ antiphons, as they are affectionately known: the seven ‘O’s enshrined in that famous and well-loved hymn, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’.

For many people it is the archetypal advent hymn. We sang it at our Advent Carol Service last Sunday evening, and we could hardly not have done, even though, strictly speaking it should not be sung any earlier than December 17th! Even today is too early. In this much it characterises the ‘backwards and forwards’ dichotomy that we find at this time of year as, in secular fashion we anticipate Christmas, yet while trying to maintain the traditional ecclesiastical, ‘advent’ mood of penitence in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. While it is extremely rare (but exciting!) to hear this hymn in midsummer, it is very common to hear it three weeks early. And today we shall sing it, strictly speaking, two weeks early. Indeed in some sense it has been subsumed into the general melée of Christmas carols heard from November onwards, and while it is properly an Advent carol, many people would unthinkingly identify it as a Christmas carol. Not all carols are Christmas carols, as I am sure you know. A carol is simply a song – a festive song, often accompanied by dancing.

So it is perhaps a little ironic that here in Advent, we anticipate the singing of an Advent carol that has specific dates for singing it, by singing it early. This dimension of anticipation, annoying as it may be to purists, is strangely fitting for the Advent season. The whole world now ‘looks forward’ to Christmas, and the tide of festivity soon goes out thereafter. Classic FM, in a fit of righteousness, refused to play any Christmas carols until December had begun: an act of restraint which I’m sorry to say gets no awards from me! But then, as I was awoken from slumber yesterday morning to the strains of ‘Deck the Hall’, my annoyance turned to satisfaction as it occurred to me that for the first time this year, not only the name, but the meaning of Jesus Christ was being aired for all to hear and marvel at. I daresay that by mid December we will all be sick of Christmas carols, but there is always that first few days, whenever they are – usually around now - in which we are reminded afresh of the message and meaning of Christmas. I’m sure the carol singers at Holborn station on Friday afternoon were contributing to this phenomenon. Even if it isn’t Christmas yet.

A month of carol services prior to Christmas may make many a cleric and organist sigh, but the situation would be far worse if no-one actually wanted them. So, anticipate Christmas we must, and must do so for the sake of the gospel: the good news of peace and goodwill, of salvation, hope and of judgment. And it is the gospel that is embedded into most of the carols that folk love to hear and sing. At this time of year especially, music can truly be the food of love – the food of God’s love. So we had better sing on!

And there is no better hymn than ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ for doing this, and it is worth looking into the prophecies and meanings which it brings with it. For in singing it we can be reminded that Christ comes twice – in the past and the future. And in doing so we recall those ancient prophecies on which its ancient text is based. Enshrined as antiphons for liturgical use they flanked the singing of the Magnificat in the last days before Christmas. Those special verses, recalling the prophecies associated with Mary’s acceptance of her calling to be the mother of Jesus, were added, resonating with and giving extra poignancy to the readings for the particular day.

As a little present for the upcoming feast of St Nicholas, or for Advent, or even, dare I say it, an early Crimbo pressie, you should have been given a little card with the Advent antiphons on. Put it on your fridge and notice each one in the days up to Christmas. And then you will arrive at Christmas Eve theologically prepared for the great revealing, the great fulfilment of prophecy that is our Lord’s nativity. So much of it will be familiar to you, however vaguely, I’m sure.

The sequence begins with O sapientia which draws on Sirach 24:3
(“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist”),
and Wisdom 8:1
(“She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well”).

The following day continues with O Adonai, which refers to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6), the Commandments (Deuteronomy 9.9-10), and the ensuing deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 6:6).

Then on December 19 O Radix Jesse reminds us of Jesus’ inheritance in the house of David whose father was Jesse: “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” (Isaiah 11.10); “so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:15) and Romans 15:11-12 which draws these together in a vision of hope for the Gentiles.

December 20 continues this theme with O Clavis David, foretelling the coming of Christ who in the synagogue associates himself with the prophecy of Isaiah: “he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 42:7). St John the Divine wrote to the church at Philadelphia (now Amman in Jordan): “These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” (Revelation 3:7).

December 21, O Oriens, recalls Christ as Light of the World (John 8:1), and hints at Hebrews 1:3 and quotes Malachi 4:2 (‘the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings”), and concludes with reference to the Nunc Dimittis: “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” (Luke 1:79).

O Rex Gentium on December 22 brings together creation (Genesis 2.7); alludes to Romans 15:12 and quotes Ephesians 2:14 and 20 with its reference to Christ as ‘Cornerstone’ of our faith.

The final day’s antiphon, from which we get the title of the hymn, falls on December 23, and draws on Isaiah prophesying the Virgin Birth of ‘Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14, and Matthew 1:23). ‘King and Lawgiver’ comes from Isaiah 33:22. And it is on this last day, that the secret word – the acrostic buried within - is revealed. Taking the first letter of the keyword and reading backwards (Emmanuel-Rex-Oriens-Clavis-Radix-Adonai-Sapientia) spells ero cras, which means ‘I shall be present tomorrow’, which is, of course, the ultimate meaning of the hymn and of the season.

These antiphons are rich in meaning and resonate with scripture and are worth reflecting upon in the days approaching Christmas. Each addresses the deity with a different name. They evolved into the hymn “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, of which various translations of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” are the surviving English versions. The first translation was made by John Henry Newman in 1836, and John Mason Neale followed suit in 1851. It is his revision of these words that we find in our hymn book at number 31, but his version only has five verses, whereas the version one finds in the New English Hymnal has the full and necessary complement of seven.

Common Praise only has five ‘O’s!

Just as Latin antiphons served as a kind of refrain to the Magnificat, when the hymn was created, around the twelfth century, the hymn itself was given a refrain: “Gaude, gaude Emmanuel, nascitur pro te, Israel” (Rejoice, rejoice…). Thus what we have today is a set of refrains, with a refrain!

The tune itself is derived from a French mediaeval plainsong melody, which was possibly used as a tune for Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy), the opening part of a sung eucharist. And there is something apt about that – that buried in the music is a plea for mercy – a plea, which, is all but built into this penitential season of Advent, when we tend to sing the Kyrie Eleison rather than the Gloria. In 1966 the oldest surviving edition of the tune was found in the archives of a French Franciscan convent. Dating from the fifteenth century, it was allied to the Requiem text Libere Me, Domine. Nowadays we still sing the verses in unison, honouring the original approach use to this ancient tune, but might add rich harmony for the refrains.

Such is the complex blend that makes up a modern Advent: the simple, penitential message of a promised saviour, who came and will come again; combined with the richness and splendour of Christmas, beckoning us from every shop window and carol service as we advance further into December. And so as we do advance into December, our Festive Fair already behind us, and our Toy Service next week, and much carol singing thereafter, with a final culmination at our Carol Service on 18th and then on Christmas Eve and Day itself – as we advance through this joyful, repetitive, theologically loaded period, let us enjoy the complexity, but try to hold onto the simplicity of what it is all about and what it means. Just as John the Baptist may have felt like a lone voice calling in the wilderness proclaiming the coming of the Lord Jesus, let us also proclaim his coming – his second coming. And as we do that – even amidst the clamour of glib celebration of his first coming – as we do that, let’s be reminded of the prophecies hailing that first coming, so that as we arrive at the final week of Advent, with those seven great ‘O’s of hope: as we arrive, let us not be confused about what those ‘O’s are, and truly pass through the openings into faith that they provide at Advent, at Christmas, or at any time. Oh yes, we have some ‘O’s all right.

Seven great ‘O’s, of faith, hope, light and salvation.


The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 04/12/11