Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

John Mason Neale, 1851
Addressed to Christ and then the Church
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,Is. 7:14; Matt. 1:23
and ransom captive Israel,2 Kin. 24:16; Is. 35:10; Mark 10:45; Gal. 3:23
that mourns in lonely exile here,Lam. 1:3; Heb. 9:28
until the Son of God appear.Is. 61:2
Rejoice! Rejoice! EmmanuelZech. 2:10; Rev. 22:20
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Oh, come, oh, come, thou Lord of might,Ps. 28:8; 89:8; Jer. 10:6
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst give the lawEx. 24:12
in cloud and majesty and awe.Ex. 19:18
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Oh, come, thou Rod of Jesse, freeIs. 11:1, 10; Rom. 15:12
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;Is. 49:25; Gal. 4:3; Rev. 2:13
from depths of hell thy people save,Ezek. 37:23; Matt. 1:21
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.1 Cor. 15:21
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Oh, come, thou Dayspring from on high,Mal. 4:2; Luke 1:78 (KJV); 2 Peter 1:19
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,Is. 9:2; Is. 60:1–2
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Oh, come, thou Key of David, comeIs. 22:22; Rev. 3:7
and open wide our heav’nly home;Mal. 3:10
make safe the way that leads on high,John 14:6
and close the path to misery.Matt. 7:13; Rom. 3:16
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

Not least among the joys of the second coming of Christ will be the unification of the Church Historic. Imagine rejoicing at the wedding feast of the Lamb with saints from Boethius's sixth century and Calvin's sixteenth. When we set aside the larger part of December as a period in preparation for the arrival (advent) of Christ, we do so partly to long for Christ's second coming and the way it will bring together all saints from all ages. The advent hymn printed above can boast one of the richest histories in English hymnody, and one that touches many points along the line that runs from the early church till today. To sing it at Advent is not only to mean the words it gives us—words that call for the second coming of Christ and prepare us for Christmas in the most biblical of terms. It is to share in that same petition voiced by millions of saints gone before us, a union with whom we cannot perfectly taste until the second coming.

This hymn is popularly described as a rendering of twelfth-century chant texts, but this is to miss the biblical and thus older origins of the imagery in each stanza (see references above). No later than the eighth century AD, monks developed a set of chants, to be used during the last part of Advent, all of which begin with the vocative particle “O” and end with a petition for Christ to come. The seven original chants petitioned him according to the following names: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Daystar, King, and Emmanuel. In each, Christ is asked for something befitting each name (as Daystar, to enlighten those in the darkness of sin, for example). The set of chants, known throughout the Middle Ages as the “O” antiphons, were a way to let Old Testament imagery prepare a way for the feast of Christmas.

As beautiful as these medieval chants are, their idiom (through-composed and melismatic) was developed in the hands of trained monastic singers; it was never meant for a congregation of limited musical ability. By contrast, as early as Ambrose of Milan, congregations of laity were using metrical poetry in strophic settings (with the same tune reused for each stanza). The “O” antiphons were eventually rendered as a strophic hymn, perhaps as early as the twelfth century. In the nineteenth-century revival of medieval spirituality, John Mason Neale turned to this hymn, the chant text that preceded it, and ultimately the prophet Isaiah, to make a hymn universally known and loved among English-speaking Christians. It has been modified over the years and appears in at least three hundred hymnals.

The five (out of seven original) stanzas chosen by the editors of the Trinity Hymnal are reordered to take singers from a petition to God With Us, made in mourning exile, to a petition to the New David who opens heaven’s gate. The first stanza appeals to Christ with the name of the New Testament as promised by Isaiah—Emmanuel. But the appeal is for the sake of Israel—God’s Old Testament people. In the last stanza, thus printed, this is reversed, so that David, the Old Testament king, is used to describe Christ who brings us into heaven, our final resting place. These two stanzas alert us to the strange suspension of “already” and “not yet” common in Advent. The refrain compounds this suspension. There, the singer addresses not Christ but the Church. He commands his fellow believers to rejoice because Emmanuel has come, even though the verses petition Christ to come again. For it is equally true to say that Christ has come and that Christ will come.

The poetry here is mostly the work of the scriptural images used. Nevertheless, Neale and those who have amended his work deserve honorable mention. Tactical use of enjambment in the third stanza (Oh, come, thou Rod of Jesse, free / thine own), fifth stanza (Oh, come, thou Key of David, come / and open), and refrain (Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / shall come) creates a momentum offset by the segmented logic of the rest of the poem. Also of merit is the way each stanza sustains the image laid out by its own particular name of Christ. So, for instance, Jesse’s Rod is taken to be a scepter that breaks the tyranny of Satan and liberates believers from death and hell.

By a strange coincidence, Thomas Helmore's tune VENI EMMANUEL bears some resemblance in places to the eighth-century chant melodies that once set the texts mentioned above. It is certainly influenced by a fifteenth-century processional written for French nuns. But to chase out all the distant references would be needlessly complicated for our purposes. Those purposes are simple—to demonstrate that the tune is memorable, distinctive, singable, and does the text's meaning a service. As for the first three, there is hardly an English speaking Christian who does not know the tune. If they cannot sing it, they probably sing nothing at all. As for the fourth, we’ll point out three ways the tune supports the text’s meaning. First, the archaic chant-like style keeps singers mindful of the historical scope of Israel’s—that is, the Church’s—waiting for Emmanuel. Second, the change of rhythm at the beginning of the refrain interrupts the flow of the chant to exclaim, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” and thereby demarcates the shift in address, from words of petition addressed to Christ in the stanzas, to words of assurance addressed to one another in the refrain. Finally, the tune’s cadential structure serves the tension between “already” and “not yet” described by the text. The first line moves from E minor to G major. The second moves from G major back to E minor. The third moves to D major, which is a preparation for the fourth line, ending in G major again. Then, in the refrain, the play between modes speeds up, with the first “Rejoice” set in G major and the second moving toward in E minor, where the tune ends. It ends in minor because Advent is a time when we look forward to Christ's coming.