“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

This is the hymn of the day for the Fourth Sunday in Advent across numerous Christian traditions. Written by the Rev. John Mason Neale, published in his and Thomas Helmore Hymnal Noted, Part II (1854), and revised by Neale in subsequent hymnals until his death, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was based on the series of ‘O” antiphons sung at Vespers from December 17-23.  In the original Latin, the second letters of the seven antiphons spell out the reverse acrostic “ERO CRAS” — “I shall be [with you] tomorrow”, as the Church prepares to celebrate Christ’s birth.

The tune of this hymn has an especially intriguing provenance.  According to the magisterial New Oxford Book of Carols:

In an article of 1881, Helmore revealed that the source was in face a French missal [in the National Library at Lisbon, Portugal], and that Neale himself, now dead, had copied the tune … Searches failed to locate the hymn in the Lisbon library, and doubts about the authenticity of the tune were only laid to rest in 1966, when Mary Berry (then Mother Thomas More) discovered the tune in another French source, a fifteenth-century Franciscan processional, which was probably copied for a nunnery … Each verse is set out in binatim style on two pages, with the familiar melody on the left and a simple countermelody on the right.

Which (as transcribed and collated with the Latin hymnic version of the antiphons in the NOBC) sounds like this — recorded by the Taverner Consort in the style of a Franciscan procession:

And so — 1300 years on from the origin of the antiphons, 600 years after French nuns sang the hymn in procession, more than 150 years past Neale and Helmore’s translation and transcription — we watch for Christ’s coming with the Church of all ages, and sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who ord’rest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go. Refrain

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the Law
In cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
Free them from Satan’s tyranny
That trust Thy mighty pow’r to save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave. Refrain

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery. Refrain

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace. Refrain


— Rick Krueger