Before “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was translated into English, this special Christmas hymn – originally in Latin – was born out of O Antiphons: a set of monasteric chants sung the week before Christmas as early as the 9th century.
The O Antiphons are a set of chants used at Vespers (sunset/evening prayer) during the week before Christmas. Two things to note before we take a look at each one:
- Each of the O Antiphons is a title for the Messiah
- Each one refers to a prophecy made by the Biblical prophet Isaiah regarding the coming of the Messiah
O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae
English translation: O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
- “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 11:2-3
- “[H]e is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.” Isaiah 28:29
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti:veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
English translation: O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bushand gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
- “[B]ut with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” Isaiah 11:4-5
- “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Isaiah 33:22
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
English translation: O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
- “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah 11:1
- “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
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
English translation: 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.
- “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Isaiah 22:22
- “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.” Isaiah 9:7
- “…To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” Isaiah 42:7.
O Oriens (O Morning Star)
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
English translation: O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
- “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2
O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti
English translation: O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
- “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6
- “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4
- “But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” Isaiah 64:8
O Emmanuel (O God With Us)
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
English translation: O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
- “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14
*Fun fact: there is a hidden word in O Antiphons. Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon title spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.”
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Originally in Latin, the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a lyrical and rhythmic paraphrase of O Antiphons. While the words are believed to have originated in the 12th century, the earliest surviving evidence of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel dates back to the year 1710. Put in a hymnbook for all to sing (in Latin), the words expand and rearrange those of O Antiphons.
Each stanza of the hymn adapts one of the antiphons and adds a small chorus to the end: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel will be born for you, O Israel”:
Verse 1: “Veni, veni Emmanuel!” = “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
Verse 2: “Veni, O Jesse Virgula” = “O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse”
Verse 3: “Veni, veni, O Oriens” = “O come, Thou Dayspring, from on High”
Verse 4: “Veni, clavis Davidica” = “O come, Thou Key of David, come”
Verse 5: “Veni, veni, Adonai” = “O come, Adonai, Lord of might”
*For the full lyrics, click here.
Because of the metrical and chant-like nature of the words, the tune for O Come, O Come, Emmanuel wasn’t first connected to the hymn until 1851 (when the Latin words were translated into English by John Mason Neale). For a long time, it was unclear how the music actually came about. However, in 1966 musicologist Mary Berry discovered a 15th century manuscript with the melody written on it as part of a processional chant for burials.
This hymn is special. The melody calls back to its chant roots, and it supports the words with simplicity and a feeling of wonder. The lyrics are fully centered on the Messiah and His coming to save His people. We have reason to rejoice! Because of Jesus’s birth at Christmastime, we have reason to rejoice.