The hymn has its origins in Advent Antiphons from the 12th Century. What are Antiphons, you ask? There’s a fascinating Wikipedia article on this that is chock-full of information if you want to dig in. But, ultimately they are liturgical readings for Advent that take a name of the Messiah and combine it with a prophecy from Isaiah that tells of His coming. (It is times like these when I long for liturgy on my Sabbath.)
I thought for Advent I’d do four posts on four Christmas hymns or carols. And fittingly, we’ll start with O Come O Come Emmanuel
Each of these liturgical readings are the basis for each of the 7 verses of the hymn. For example, here is the fifth verse:
O come, Thou Key of David, come, And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
and the corresponding antiphon
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
An antiphony — or call and response — reading also derives from this term. So, now imagine the carol sung in that manner. Audibly picture a small portion of the choir singing the verse (the call) and then everyone, including the congregation, joining for the chorus “Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel" (the response) Or to look at it another way and paraphrase, “Where are you God?" and the response is “Rejoice, he shall come."
What is beautiful about this hymn is its somber longing for God to show up and be present - “O Come O Come." And even more “God, show up as Wisdom, might, deliverer, savior," these names that writers in scripture have given him. Despite the King Jamesque language, the words speak to the current longings of our hearts, especially as we anticipate Christmas. Read them next time you sing it or hear it. Who doesn’t long for wisdom on how we should live our life, or joy in times of sorrow, or a Savior from this life of death. It is a song that rings true for many of us.
But what I love the most about this song is that the answer is within the song itself. It is found in the name Emmanuel. This name mean’s “God with us!" from Isaiah 7:14 How cool is that. He’s here. Already. (but, also not yet.) That’s what this Advent season is all about, anticipating him coming again. We anticipate his birth as we approach Christmas as a parallel to anticipating Jesus coming again to take us our heavenly home.
So, God are you coming? Will you come and rescue you us? Are you here? Yes. Rejoice!
One final note, U2’s White as Snow from their album No Line on the Horizon uses the haunting melody for the verses of the song. It’s beautiful. I didn’t even notice it the first time.