O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It was December 21 in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, and writer Kathleen Norris was hunting in the most unlikely place for nuns.

For over twelve centuries, monasteries and convents throughout Christendom have, during the final week of Advent, chanted a series of verses at vesper services before the Magnificat or Song of Mary from Luke 1:46-55 (“My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”). These verses, known as the “Great O Antiphons,” each name Christ by a different biblical title: Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring or Radiant Dawn, King of Nations (or of the Gentiles), Emmanuel.

Norris (a Presbyterian laywoman, poet, and Benedictine oblate) had spent much of the year in a writing residency at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, and had hoped that she might be able to sing the O Antiphons with the community of monks there before returning to Hawaii to spend Christmas with her family.

A Wild Antiphon Chase

Instead, her publisher insisted she make a stop in Los Angeles to do publicity for her bestseller Dakota. As she wrote in her memoir The Cloister Walk, the publisher’s publicist was no help in finding a monastic community for her to sing vespers with; his job was “arranging interviews and putting me in a tony hotel in Beverly Hills, thinking, as he cheerfully put it, that it would make a nice contrast with the monastery.”

Leads from a friend of a friend led her to Mount St. Mary’s College, high above the city with a view of “the snow capped peaks of mountains to the east and the breadth of the Pacific to the west.” On her way, she stopped to do a scheduled radio interview and told the talk show host how she had “schemed for months to find the O Antiphons in the city. I doubt that it was the looniest interview the woman had all day, but it had its moments.”

The O Antiphons which Norris searched so hard to find are to this day sung between December 17 and 23 by Roman Catholic and Anglican religious communities around the world. They are also the source of the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” one of the few hymns and carols for that season known to low-church Protestants. Sometime around 1100, an unknown author took these antiphons and turned them into a metrical Latin poem. Shortly after 1700, an unknown editor printed this metrical version in the collection Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum.

The Birth of a Hymn

A little less than a hundred and fifty years later, the poem came to the attention of Anglican priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale (1818-1866). Prevented from serving in a parish by lung disease, Neale divided his life between social ministry (he founded a nursing order of Anglican nuns and helped social welfare organizations care for orphans and young women) and the wardenship of Sackville College. In his “spare time,” he set out to translate for his fellow Anglicans the great early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns for all the feasts and fasts of the Christian year.

Among Neale’s many, many hymnal collections were titles such as Hymns of the Eastern Church and Hymns, Chiefly Medieval, on the Joys and Glories of Paradise. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel appeared in Medieval Hymns and Sequences (1851), headed by his notation: “This Advent hymn is little more than a versification of some of the Christmas antiphons commonly called the O’s.”

Neale’s translation of the hymn made it into the Church of England’s official hymnal in 1861 and spread from there throughout Protestantism. Along the way, various other translators kept tinkering with the text; the version most commonly used today combines Neale with alterations made for the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 and stanzas on Christ as Wisdom and Desire (King) of Nations translated by Presbyterian preacher and social activist Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1954).

In Neale’s day, hymnals for congregations were often published in sizes small enough to carry to church in a pocket or bag. This meant the tunes were omitted from most hymnals; only occasionally did editions with tunes appear. In Neale’s tune collection The Hymnal, Noted (1854) he copied the melody, using it only for the first stanza and refrain, from “French sources.” Or so said the musician Thomas Helmore, who published the collection.

For many years no one knew quite what Neale’s “French sources” were, and though to this day no one still knows how Neale came in contact with the melody, its origin was eventually traced to a 15th -century processional funeral hymn for French Franciscan nuns, found in a manuscript in the National Library of Paris. An odd origin, perhaps, but his matching of tune and text seems inspired today; it is difficult to imagine the words set to any other music—especially when the verses are sung in a contemplative unison and the “Rejoice!” bursts forth in sudden, amazing harmony.

Glory and Justice

What is it about this text, whether as prose or poetry, that has survived so long, in so many different traditions—and even inspired Norris to search through San Francisco for someone to witness to its continuing presence? In a world, and sometimes even a church, that celebrates the days before Christmas as an endless obligation of organized exuberance, these words remind us that as Christians we are to long for another country, one where the coming Messiah wipes the tears of the sorrowing and casts down the mighty from their thrones.

When Norris found the community at Mount St. Mary’s, the antiphon for that evening was “O Oriens,” the Dayspring: “O Radiant Dawn, brightness of light eternal and sun of all justice; O come and illumine those who live in deep darkness and in the shadow of death.” Or, as one hymnal translates that same stanza about the true source of our joy, “O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer/ our spirits by thy justice here;/ disperse the gloomy clouds of night,/ and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” It is that, in the darkness of Advent, for which we wait. And it is that, in the glory of the Incarnation, which will arise.

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #103 in 2012]

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is an adjunct or affiliate professor of church history at Asbury Theological Seminary, United Theological Seminary, and Huntington University, the author of The Poisoned Chalice, and a regular contributor to Christian History.
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