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The Story of "O Come O Come Emmanuel"

Uncategorized Dec 17, 2020

Have you ever met anyone who didn’t like the Carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel?”  I haven’t.  It seems to me that every Christian I’ve ever known enjoys singing it.  But I wonder if you know the story behind this Carol?

I don’t know about your hymnal, but in the current Episcopal Hymnal, there are dates in front of each verse indicating when each verse is to be sung.  What do you suppose that’s about?  Well, I happen to know the answer to my own question, so here goes.

Originally the words to this Carol weren’t meant to be sung at the same time, in the way we usually sing hymns.  The words come to us from 9th Century monasteries.  In the evening of every day, year round, monks would come together to pray a particular set of prayers known in some places as “Vespers.”  In my tradition, it’s called “Evening Prayer.”  These 9th Century monks would pray Mary’s Song daily – yes, you heard me right – every day at sunset, they would sing the words,  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” continuing on with all the rest of the words that Mary spoke.  Every evening at sunset they did this.

When Advent (4 weeks before Christmas) came around each year, these monks would add something special before and after the Song of Mary.  On December 17, they would sing “O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear” both before and after Mary’s Song. 

On December 18, they would sing the words that we think of as “verse 2” before and after Mary’s Song.  On December 19, verse 3; on December 20, verse 4; and so on until by the time Christmas Eve arrived, they would have sung each of these sets of words around the Magnificat -- Mary's Song, one set per day.  This is one of the ways that they would anticipate the Birth of Jesus.

These words were not originally meant to be sung one after the other, non stop, like a hymn.  And the refrain that we now sing after each verse was added centuries later.  And voila, now we have a hymn – a Christmas Carol, or more appropriately an Advent Carol.  The tune that we sing this Carol to was added in the 15th century.

That's its history musically.  Now I want to add some devotional material.  Each verse describes some form of suffering that the Israelites wanted to be delivered from:  "lonely exile," "Satan's tyranny," "gloomy clouds of night," "death's dark shadows," etc.  They wanted Emmanuel to "Come" and deliver them from all this darkness. 

And yet each verse also speaks of the hope that will happen when Emmanuel, the Messiah will bring when he arrives.  Each verse calls upon a different name for the Messiah:  Emmanuel means "God with us."  "Wisdom from on high" can show us ways that are full of Godly Wisdom.  "Branch of Jesse's Tree" refers to the lineage of the Messiah -- the Scripture from Isaiah 11:1-2, that says, "Then a shoot will spring up from the stump of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit.  The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.…"

All this and more -- God with us, Wisdom from on high, Branch from the stump of Jesse that the Spirit of the Lord will rest on...brings us hope, even in the middle of ongoing pandemic, political divisiveness in our country, and our own deep spiritual longings.

It's only one more week until Christmas.  I wonder if any of you would feel led to join me in reading one of the verses to this Carol each evening, beginning this evening -- December 17th.  If so, pray each verse one at a time, a different one each night until Christmas Eve.  I believe it would bring us a blessing.

“O Come O Come Emmanuel” remains one of my favorite musical ways to prepare my heart for Christmas, as I wait with eager expectation.  What about you?  What is your favorite Christmas Carol?


Leave me a comment.

And remember, you're awesome!  And God holds you in the palm of His hand.

2020 © Dorothy Gremillion


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