It Began as One Word

As with other hymns, the origins of our familiar Christmas carols are varied and sometimes quite interesting. But no other has such an unusual history as this selection. It began as one single word! On occasion I have asked a congregation what they thought that word might be. Guesses such as: Jesus, birth, manger, Mary, and so on, have been offered. But all are incorrect.

The carol in question is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." To trace the origins of the song we have to go back about fourteen centuries, to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Each day during the week before Christmas, it was the practice in the church of that era to read the "Magificat," Mary's song of praise recorded in Luke 1:46-55.

Before and after the reading an antiphon would be sung, with choral groups answering back and forth "antiphonally." The antiphon anticipating the advent of Christ consisted of a single word–a long, drawn-out "O!" Called "The Great O of Advent," it was intended to express a deep sense of yearning for the coming of the Saviour.

That spiritual hunger among the people of God was evident in Israel before Jesus was born. Although in many of our Bibles we simply need to turn a page or two to get from Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, to Matthew, the first in the New, a great deal of time passed between them. Malachi prophesied concerning the work of John the Baptist (Mal. 3:1; cf. Matt. 11:10), but it was four centuries before he came on the scene. Sometimes those are called "the Four Hundred Silent Years," since no inspired prophecy came from the Lord during that time.

No doubt that silence awakened a growing sense of anticipation among the saints. When would the Messiah come? When would the Lord fulfil the promises He made so long ago? Two who wondered and hoped were elderly Simeon and Anna. The Bible says Simeon was "waiting for the Consolation [the Consoler] of Israel." And when he saw the baby Jesus he confessed that he could "depart in peace" because "My eyes have seen Your salvation" (Lk. 2:25, 29-30).

Widowed Anna lived in the temple complex, giving herself to "fastings and prayers." When she saw the Infant, she "spoke of Him to all those who were looking for redemption in Israel" (Lk. 2:37-38). Possibly she whispered, with some excitement, "He's come! He's come!"

The faithful in Israel were waiting for His coming, and looking for it. And that zealous devotion was later given voice in the Great O of Advent. One hymn historian describes it as almost "a cry of distress," an urgent plea for deliverance from on high.

As time went by, other words were added to that "O," different ones for each of the seven days the Antiphon of Advent was used. Each became a unique prayer, incorporating a description of the Lord Jesus. There was, "O Key of David, unlock the prison house," one day. And "O Dayspring, come and give us light," on another. Finally, someone thought of combining the antiphons into a single Latin hymn.

In 1851, John Mason Neale (1818-1856) translated the words into English and gave us the carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Neale's great gift to the Christian church was his translation work. He brought to English-speaking Christians some of the treasury of Greek and Latin hymns from long ago.

This one anticipates the Christmas season, saying in one stanza, "O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free / Thine own from Satan's tyranny; / From depths of hell Thy people save / And give them victory o'er the grave." And the Lord Jesus did just that! Through faith in His work on Calvary we can be saved eternally. As the Bible declares, "O Death, where is your sting?...Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (I Cor. 15:57).