Do you love a riddle? How about one that’s more than a thousand years old?
“O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL” holds a hidden message. To decode it, we’ll start at the very beginning — with the O Antiphons.
AN ADVENT ACROSTIC
Imagine a medieval monastery one winter’s evening. It is the week before Christmas, a time of expectant waiting and contemplation. The monks have gathered for a vespers service in the candlelit chapel. There, they chant “The Great O Antiphons” and recite the Magnificat, Mary’s radical social justice song (Luke 1: 46-55).
Each antiphon names a Messianic title for Christ found in scripture and begins with “O” — the sound of longing.
O Sapientia (Wisdom) — Proverbs 1: 20
O Adonai (God) — Isaiah 40: 9-10
O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) — Isaiah 11:10
O Clavis David (Key of David) — Isaiah 22:22
O Oriens (Dayspring) — Isaiah 9:2
O Rex Gentium (Ruler of the nations) — Isaiah 2: 4
O Emmanuel (God with us) — Isaiah 7: 14
There is a hidden message in this centuries old text. Decode the acrostic like this:
~ Drop the beginning O’s.
~ The first letters of each line then spell S-A-R-C-O-R-E
~ Reverse the order of those letters, to make two words: ERO CRAS
~ In Latin “Ero cras” means “Tomorrow I will be” or “I will be present.”
It all leads to Emmanuel — “God with us.”
After several centuries, someone took the O Antiphons, paraphrased them, played with their order, and created a hymn with a refrain. In 1851, John Mason Neale translated this Latin text into English.
JOHN MASON NEALE — EXILED ECCENTRIC
Some hymnologists have called London-born Neale (1818-1866) “the Prince of translators.” Alas, the church hierarchy of his day had other, not so nice names for the brilliant but offbeat Anglican priest. They sent him into obscurity to East Grinstead, south of London, with his wife and four children, to be the warden of an almshouse.
His health was poor but his compassion was strong, so was his faith and thirst for learning. Miles from the buzz and bustle of London, he was happy to spend long nights studying theology, history, folklore, and early church music; exploring the twenty languages at his command; translating sacred texts; and writing hymns and carols (most famously “Good King Wenceslas”), all the while overseeing the care of a home for the poor and elderly and founding a nursing order of Anglican nuns, a school, and organizations to aid orphans and female prostitutes.
Rev. Neale published his translation of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in an 1851 collection titled Medieval Hymns and Sequences and added this note: “This Advent hymn is little more than a versification of some of the Christmas antiphons commonly called the O’s.”
The haunting melody is thought to come from a 15th century hymnal of Franciscan processional music. Oxford-educated Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), a student of Gregorian chant, found the solemn melody and transformed it into the tune we know as VENI EMMANUEL.
A PLEA FOR REORIENTATION
Advent is a time apart, like Lent, a time for the reorienting of our intentions.
O come, thou Dayspring,
come and cheer
our spirits by thy justice here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows
put to flight.
Dayspring is the translation of Oriens, or the East where the sun first appears each day. Oriens is the Latin root of the English word “orientation.”
This is what we long for in Advent, Oriens, for our lives to be oriented to the Sacred, to Christ, to an ethic of justice and love in the world. Is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” a riddle? a puzzle? a maze that leads through centuries of our faith to the Holy Child? To be sure it is an invocation, a journey into the Sacred, the Desire of nations, God with us.
O come, Emmanuel, we pray as we sing. O come with your many names and images. O come, Wisdom, bring order and knowledge. O come and reorient us. O come, we beg again and again. And singing together, we catch a glimmer of hope. Rejoice!
TO GO DEEPER
Words and music, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on the Hymnary website
“The O Antiphons of Advent” on Catholic Ireland website
“History of Hymns: ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’” by C. Michael Hawn, 2013, UMC Discipleship Ministries website
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, Christian History magazine, 2012. (An account of the hymn’s history woven into the story of author Kathleen Norris’s desperate search one year for a place to join in singing the O’s in San Francisco. A fun & informative read!)
“What Is Advent?” (with an explanation of the O Antiphons and audio of the chants) by the Benedictine Nuns of Holy Tinity Monastery, Herefordshire
John Mason Neale on Conjubilant with Song website, 2016
Meditation on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by John Piper, 2015
“Reflecting on the Magnificat” by Aidan Stoddart, Dec. 22, 2017, Harvard Ichthus (journal of Christian thought)