“O Come, O Come …”
Next weekend (Nov. 26-27), you will probably start hearing one of the most beloved Advent hymns: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (“Veni Veni, Emmanuel” in Latin) as we observe the First Sunday of Advent.
With its plainsong style and easy to remember tune, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is instantly recognizable. Surprisingly, though, it is newer than what one might think, at least in the form we know today. The hymn we know today has its roots partly in monasteries and partly during church burials.
The verses of “Veni Veni, Emmanuel” began as antiphons in eighth-century monasteries. (An antiphon is a chanted refrain used for psalms during the Liturgy of the Hours each day.) These particular antiphons — seven in number — were not used until the end of Advent, starting on Dec. 17.
Today, we know them as the “O Antiphons” or the “Great Os.” Traditionally chanted without musical accompaniment, they were sung in anticipation of Christ’s birth and chanted during Vespers (evening prayer) after the Magnifi cat on those final days before Christmas. Each antiphon echoes words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, both of whom we will hear from during Advent, because they both announced the coming of Emmanuel (“God with us”).
These “O Antiphons” also gave us the verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but in a slightly different order than those of Vespers. The final “O Antiphon” — “O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law, come to save us, Lord our God” — became the first verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” as well as its refrain.
THE GREAT O’S
Otherwise, the hymn follows the sequence of the “O Antiphons,” each honoring a title of the Christ:
Wisdom — Sapientia in Latin (Dec. 17). This is the second verse in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”;
Lord — Adonai (Dec. 18), now verse three;
Root of Jesse — Radix Jesse (Dec. 19), verse four;
Key of David — Clavis David (Dec. 20), verse five;
Dayspring — Oriens, meaning “rising dawn” (Dec. 21) is the hymn’s sixth verse;
King of Nations — Rex Gentium (Dec. 22) is verse seven;
Emmanuel, meaning “God with us” (Dec. 23).
The “Veni Veni, Emmanuel” hymn appeared in modern times in “The Hymnal Noted, Part 2,” edited by Thomas Helmore (a priest of the Church of England) in 1854. The hymn was then called “Veni Emmanuel.” The English lyrics in this book were a translation from Latin by John Mason Neale in 1851. Neale, another Anglican priest, had discovered the older Latin hymn in an early 18th-century manuscript called “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum.” He translated it in 1851 and included it in his own “Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences” (1861). Neale is also the composer of “Good King Wenceslaus.”
Neale’s version of the “Veni Veni” hymn did not include all the seven verses we are familiar with now. Those fell into place, thanks to a Presbyterian minister, Henry Sloane Coffin, in 1916.
The tune we know so well was added to the 1854 book with Neale’s verses by Helmore. In the book, Helmore said he had found the tune in “a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon.” But Helmore never cited a source. And none could be identified for over a century.
Then, in 1966, Mary Berry, a musicologist and founder of the Schola Gregoriana at Cambridge University, found the source. Berry located just such a “Lisbon missal” as Helmore had cited in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. She later described the missal as “Franciscan in origin and probably intended for the use of nuns rather than friars. Turning the pages I discovered, on folio 89v ff, a number of troped verses for the funeral responsory, ‘Libera me,’ in the form of a litany,
…The melody of these tropes was none other than the tune of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel.’”
The verses Berry referenced were originally used after a funeral, when the body was carried to the church cemetery. “Libera me” translates roughly as “rescue me” and is a plea to God on behalf of the deceased.
While a funeral hymn may seem odd for Advent, when you look at Advent’s “O Antiphons,” you will see that most of them ask God to “rescue them.” For example, the first verse of our “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” asks God to “ransom captive Israel.”
The “O Antiphons” ends Dec. 23, not Christmas Eve. Another antiphon is sung after the Magnifi cat at Vespers on that day. It is the “O Virgo virginum” (“O Virgin of virgins”) antiphon. It begins: “O Virgin of virgins how shall this be? For neither before you were there any like you, nor shall there be after. The thing you behold is a divine mystery.” (It is not part of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”)
How fitting that the O Antiphons lead us to Mary, who prayed longer and more than any of us for Emmanuel to come to us.
Sources: usccb.org/prayers/o-antiphons-advent; hymnary.org; catholicculture.org; newliturgicalmovement.org; St.John Lutheran Church in Fredonia, Wis. at stjohnfredonia.org and umcdiscipleship.org