This article was edited and co-authored by Joe Palekas.

Have you ever caught yourself singing along to a song on the radio that you know by heart, only to realize that you’ve never actually given serious thought to the words before? Worse yet, has this happened to you in church? Your eyes and heart glaze over and you put yourself on autopilot as you sing along mechanically with the words printed in your bulletin. We are at danger of doing this most with the songs that are most familiar!

Every year at Christmas, we trot out the same hymns and carols. Singing them is fun primarily because of nostalgia – this is how it’s always been done, and we like it that way! How often though do we pause and consider seriously the words that are so beautifully put to music? That is the goal of this article. Consider with me the beauty and power that our Advent and Christmas songs express.

Songs of the Bible and the Church that Anticipate Messiah

The Christian tradition of Advent and Christmas hymns has its roots in Scripture. The gospel of Luke records four distinct songs that express the yearning for a Messiah, the Anointed One who would rescue Israel from their bondage.

  • The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)
  • The Song of Zachariah (Luke 1:67-79)
  • The Song of the Angels (Luke 2:13-14)
  • The Song of Simeon (Luke 2:28-32)

In church history, each of these songs have been assigned a title, typically from the Latin translation of the words. Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat (my soul magnifies the Lord), Zachariah’s song is the Benedictus (Blessed be the Lord…), the angels sing Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God in the highest), and Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis (Now you dismiss).

Perhaps most famous is the Magnificat. In Western Christian traditions, the Magnificat has been sung daily within Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic contexts, specifically in Vespers or Evensong services. During the season of Advent, the Magnificat is preceded by short canticles called the O Antiphons that are sung on the seven days leading up to Christmas. Accordingly, these antiphons have been used since the 6th century AD.

O Antiphons and Advent

The O Antiphons are so named because the title of each one begins with “O.” Each antiphon opens with a title for the Messiah as prophesied by Isaiah, then describes the associated attributes found in Scripture, concluding with a petition asking for the fulfillment of a scriptural promise or prophecy.

  • O Sapentia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jessse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

The first letter of the titles, when read backwards, form a Latin acrostic of “ERO CRAS” which translates to “Tomorrow, I will come.” This phrase mirrors the theme of the antiphons, which are an expression of the desire for Jesus to come.

O Antiphons and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

What does any of this have to do with the songs we sing? Many of us don’t participate in worship services where the O Antiphons are sung regularly. Historically, each of the O Antiphons is a prayer to Jesus that has three parts: a title for the Messiah, a prophecy of Isaiah describing an attribute of the promised Messiah, and an invitation for Christ to come and manifest that attribute in our lives.

The Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (VENI, VENI, EMMANUEL) is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons and the antiphons form the basis for each verse of the hymn. The tune for the hymn is of 15th century French origin and was originally found in a Roman Catholic collection of processional chants used for burials. It was adapted by Anglican church musician The Reverend Thomas Helmore (1811-1890) and published in 1854.

Below, consider the connection between the O Antiphons, each verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and Scripture. As you go through each antiphon, you will see the antiphon itself, followed by its connected Scripture and then the verse that corresponds in “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Consider the links between the words and use each as an opportunity to reflect on the miracle of God’s incarnation.

Antiphon: O Sapentia (O Wisdom)

Prayer: O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things; Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Isaiah had prophesied: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2-3). “He is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.” (Isaiah 28:29).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 2):

Oh come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Scriptural Basis: Proverbs 8 describes the blessings of wisdom and the Lord’s ordering of all things in creation with all wisdom. This passage, which personifies wisdom, was also used by church fathers to draw a connection between the person of Christ and wisdom. In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 1:24. Further, John calls Jesus the Word in John 1, which was closely associated with the wisdom concept.

Antiphon: O Adonai (O Lord)

Prayer: O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai; Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Isaiah had prophesied: “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Isaiah 11:4-5). For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” (Isaiah 33:22).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 3):

O come, o come, our Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

Scriptural Basis: God identifies himself as “I AM WHO I AM” in Exodus 3 in the burning bush. In John 8:58, Jesus drew on this name explicitly, stating: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus, then, is the great I AM. Exodus 19:16-20 describes the theophany on Mount Sinai and God’s holy power in coming to declare the law to his people.

Antiphon: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

Prayer: O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples, before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Isaiah had prophesied: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1). “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 4):

Oh, come thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
Free them from Satan’s tyranny,
That trust thy mighty power to save;
And give them victory o’er the grave.

Scriptural Basis: This antiphon draws heavily on Jesus as the shoot of Jesse, that is, as the offspring of Jesse. Jesse’s son was David and Matthew’s gospel identifies Jesus as a Son of David. In Revelation 22:16, Jesus identifies himself as the offspring of David.

Antiphon: O Clavis David (O Key of David)

Prayer: O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open; Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah had prophesied: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 22:22, context Isaiah 22:15-25). “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.” (Isaiah 9:7). “…To open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:7).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 5):

Oh, come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Scriptural Basis: Jesus opens to us the kingdom of heaven. The gospels repeatedly emphasizes Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. This specific phrase comes from Revelation 3:7-8 which reads, “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”

Antiphon: O Oriens (O Dayspring)

Prayer: O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness; Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah had prophesied: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2). “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you, For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:1-3).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 6):

Oh, come, thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Scriptural Basis: Jesus himself claims to be the light of the world (John 8:12). The gospel of John opens with the light dawning on a land of darkness. Further, Jesus is called the morning star in 2 Peter 1:19 and Revelation 22:16.

Antiphon: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)

Prayer: O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one; Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

Isaiah had prophesied: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6). “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:7).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 6):

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Scriptural Basis: Zechariah 9:9 declares that the King is coming. The idea of Jesus as the king of nations is further built out in the gospels and epistles. Ephesians 2 in particular declares Jesus as the peace between the warring people groups of Jew and Gentile. This desire is particularly poignant in a time of distress and division. Jesus, as our promised peace and desire of all nations, comes again to do just that.

Antiphon: O Emmanuel (O God With Us)

Prayer: O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior; Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Isaiah had prophesied: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14).

O Come O Come Emmanuel (verse 6):

O come O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.

Scriptural Basis: Matthew 1:23 explicitly ties the prophecy in Isaiah 7 to the promised birth of Jesus. The baby born to Mary is to be called Jesus for he will save his people from their sins and Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’

This is the true and enduring meaning of the Christmas season. The wonder of the incarnation is that God himself dwelt with man. It is declared in Matthew and again in John. The Word, which was at the beginning and was with God and was God, put on flesh and came to dwell with man. The miracle of Christmas also points us forward to the miracle of Jesus’ second Advent, when he will come again and on that day, God will dwell with his people and he will be their God (Revelation 21). This, then, is what we pray for as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” As we sing this hymn this Advent and Christmas season, we can be reminded that we are joining voices with the church over centuries celebrating Jesus’ first advent and praying for his second.

Steve Martin is Principal Emeritus at Gensler, a leading international architecture firm, and an ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. An organist, artist, and musician, he has a particular interest in both visual and musical aesthetics and worship.

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