Published on December 23rd, 2012 | by msalt

O come, O come Emmanuel

This has always been my favorite Christmas hymn — wondrous, melancholy, deep, not so insipid. Turns out, its history is just as deep.

The Latin verse dates back at least to 800 CE, by when it was common in Rome, and probably before 524 CE (when Boethius, who seems to refer to it in print, died.) OCOCE is a distillation of the O Antiphons still sung before the Magnificat at Catholic services during Advent; today is the day for “O Emmanuel.” (An antiphon is a response sung by a choir or congregation.)

Our current version was translated from Latin in the Madeira Islands, off Africa, by Anglican priest John Mason Neale in the mid-1800s. The tune is either a 15th century processional from a Portuguese convent, or an 8th Century Gregorian chant.

There is another layer of meaning as well. Each of the 7 O Antiphons represents a different name of Christ from Scripture, and they are played as follows:

December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

When you form an acrostic by taking the first letter (after O) from each antiphon, in reverse order, it spells Christ’s answer when we call him to come: ERO CRAS, which is Latin for “Tomorrow, I will be there.”

Sources: wiki 12, Jeff Sanders, the National Pastoral Musician weekly newsletter via Pat Ferro.

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About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

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