This is a translation of a Latin hymn, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, itself a metrical paraphrase of the O Antiphons – a series of plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas.
O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Wisdom from above who ord’rest all things through thy love; to us the path of knowledge show and teach us in her way to go.
O come, O come, thou Lord of might who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height, in ancient times didst give the law in cloud, and majesty, and awe.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
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.
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, Desire of nations, bring all people to their Saviour King; thou Corner-stone, who makest one, complete in us they work begun:
I once got the opportunity to buy a cut-price copy of the now out-of-print ‘Companion to Rejoice & Sing’, which is always a wonderful resource for learning the story behind hymns. It is the source of information for the next three paragraphs about this mournful and atmospheric advent carol:
It is based upon the Great ‘O’ set of ancient 9th century ‘Antiphons’ – refrains that were sung in Latin in the evening Office of Vespers before and / or after the Magnificat during the seven days before Christmas Eve. Each is based upon one or more of the vivid titles of the Messiah found mainly in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In some religious houses the custom was for each day’s chant to be led by a different person, who would also prepare the meal or drinks which followed; the equivalent of ‘standing a round!’
In the original sequence, they referred to Wisdom (Proverbs 8); Adonai / Leader of the House of Israel (Exodus 3); Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10); Key of David (Isaiah 22:22); The Dayspring / Sunrise (Malachi 4:2 & Isaiah 28:16); the Corner Stone which unites (Haggai 2:7 & Isaiah 28:16; and finally, bringing them all together, Emanuel, King and Law-giver, the expected Saviour of the nations.
Nowadays of course we are much more likely to simply sing it as set, though once, while in college, I remember a leader of worship who had the idea to structure a whole service around the Great ‘O’s. It consisted of a series of reflections on the theme within each verse, each of which was so monumentally dull that several of us got the giggles, like naughty ten-year-olds. It was a master class in taking a good idea and sadly implementing it so badly that for me I took ten years before I could sing the hymn without wincing (not to mention feeling a little guilty!) Fortunately with time I have come to re-appreciate the beauty of the melody and immerse myself in the messianic expectation rooted in Judaism, developed in medieval times and still capable in our 21st Century worship, of touching us and being a deeply spiritual part of our Advent preparation.
God of unexpectedness in the midst of the mundane and the everyday routine, help us to prepare, to explore, to reimagine as we enter this season of expectation. Teach us to appreciate the newness and outrageousness of your intervention in sending a Messiah who fulfilled all prophecies without fitting any model predicted. Amen
The Rev’d Peter Clark is Minister in the Bridport and Dorchester Joint Pastorate