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       2 December 2018

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Text: trans. John Mason Neale, Henry Sloan Coffin, Lawrence Hull Stookey

This is a very popular Advent hymn, sung in English speaking churches since probably the mid 19th Century. However, its text has an origin much more ancient.

The "Great O's" or the "Seven Greater Antiphons" as the original text was known, were sung in Latin as short anthem-verses from perhaps as early as the sixth or seventh century. These Seven Greater Antiphons were sung at Vespers (Anglican) in Advent, beginning December 17, one being sung each evening until Christmas Eve. The word "antiphon" indicates that the lines were sung alternately by two choirs sitting opposite each other in the chancel. The Latin text of the antiphons is as follows: 

Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi.
Adonay et dux domus Israel.
Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum.
Clavis David et sceptrum domus Israel.
Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae.
Rex gentium et desideratus.
Emanuel, rex et legifer.

If you remember any Latin at all or think you recognize a word or two in these stanzas you can tell that the hymn, as presented in modern hymnals, is a greatly expanded "fleshing out" of the antiphons. The capitalized Latin words in order can be translated: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Orient (=East), King, Emmanuel (God with us). Furthermore the order of the stanzas in English versions, bears little resemblance to the original order. This is all due to the various translators, versions, and hymnals through which the hymn has progressed through the years.

John M. Neale, who is responsible for beginning the English translation of this text and receives credit in most modern versions with translating at least the first stanza, is known largely for his work at translating and paraphrasing from Greek and Latin texts. He single-handedly introduced the Eastern Christian ligurgical and didactic writings to the English traditions of psalmody and hymnody. Prior to his work these texts were unknown. He has to his credit ten translations in the current United Methodist Hymnal.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel first entered a Methodist Hymnal in 1935 with only three stanzas. The first stanza was credited to Neale and the second and third to Henry Sloane Coffin, noted preacher, lecturer and author.

In the current UM Hymnal, there are seven stanzas. Laurence Hull Stookey is credited with creating stanza 4 and portions of stanzas 5, 6 and 7. Also the hymn is followed by a prose antiphonal reading which can be read effectively with the singing of the hymn.

God Bless You!


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