IN NOMINE JESU
Tonight we look at another hymn that has a rich history in the life of the Church: "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel." Originally, this was not even a hymn, but it was a series of antiphons. An antiphon is a verse sung or spoken before and after a psalm or canticle. We speak the antiphonal verses before and after each psalm in our services, just as we did tonight. But these particular antiphons have a special place in the history and liturgy of the Church. These seven verses are called the "O Antiphons," antiphons which begin with the vocative, poetic O. Following each O is a title for our Lord, each title taken from Holy Scripture. After addressing the Lord, we give a rationale for calling upon Him, a quality of Him or something He has done. Each antiphon also points to a prophecy in Isaiah regarding the coming of the Messiah. The second half of the antiphon is a petition for the Lord to come. The "O Antiphons" are only used once a year, during the week before the Nativity of Our Lord, one antiphon each day from December 17 through December 23.
The "O Antiphons" have a long history, first alluded to around the year 500. These verses were sung in the monastery. Each day a different officer of the monastery took his turn in singing the antiphon, which was wrapped around not a psalm but a canticle, the Magnificat, Mary's song, which is sung at Vespers, just as the Magnificat hymn will be sung tonight. But what do the "O Antiphons" have to do with our office hymn tonight: "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel"?
Somewhere is the middle of the Middle Ages these antiphons were put into verse form, which became the hymn we now know as "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel." These stanzas were translated into English by a mid-nineteenth century Anglican priest and hymnwriter named John Mason Neale. We are even less certain about the tune's origin. The tune, VENI EMMANUEL, Latin for "Come, Emmanuel," is a plainsong, Gregorian-style chant, but some historians have surmised that the tune was largely fragments of some forms of the Kyrie, but most others believe the tune is French in origin, dating back to the fifteenth century.
The first of the "O Antiphons" is the basis for the stanza referring to our Lord as Wisdom (the second stanza of our hymn), sung on December 17. The stanzas of the hymn correspond directly with each antiphon until the last one, the "O Antiphon" for December 23, the one addressing the Lord as Emmanuel, our first stanza. You will understand better as we go through each antiphon and as you look at the hymn, beginning with the second stanza. The antiphon for December 17 is the basis for our second stanza: "O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: Come and teach us the ways of prudence."
The antiphon for December 18 follows the hymn's third stanza: "O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us." Adonai is Hebrew for the title "Lord."
The antiphon for December 19 corresponds with the fourth stanza of the office hymn: "O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come quickly to deliver us."
The antiphon for December 20 agrees with this great hymn's fifth stanza: "O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, You open and no one can close, You close and no one can open: Come and receive the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death."
For December 21 the antiphon meets with the sixth stanza: "O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." It bears noting that at one time the "O Antiphons" began on December 16, moved up one day, and was suspended for the observance of St. Thomas' Day, December 21.
The "O Antiphons" resumed the following day, December 22, for which the antiphon meshes with this hymn's seventh stanza: "O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all people: Come and save us all, whom You formed out of clay."
The final "O Antiphon," for December 23, is used on this day because it is the last Vespers before Christmas Eve, and it is in keeping with the hymn's first stanza: "O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord, the anointed for the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God." At this point it is interesting to note that, by taking the titles for our Lord—in their original languages in the antiphons—from the last antiphon to the first and using the first letter of each title, the letters spell out the Latin words ero cras, which means "I will be with you tomorrow." This is most appropriate to keep in mind on December 23, as we prepare to celebrate the Savior's birth the following night.
There are a number of similarities among the antiphons and, therefore, our hymn stanzas. Each antiphon and each stanza begins with "O" ("Oh"). The second half of each antiphon and the second word of each stanza have the invitation "come." Each stanza and antiphon refers to our Lord by His numerous titles in Scripture. Note the petition of each antiphon, each having two imperative verbs—we bid our Lord to come and to do something else as well. "Teach us." "Redeem us." "Deliver us." "Rescue the prisoners." "Enlighten those…in darkness." "Save us all." "Save us."
We come before our Lord during this Second Week in Advent, imploring Him to come and teach us, redeem us, deliver us, rescue us, enlighten us, and save us—to save us all. We need Him to rescue us, for we are in darkness and the shadow of death. Our Lord needs to come to us because we cannot come to Him. We cannot see our way to Him because we are in total spiritual darkness, blinded by our sin. All we can do on our earthly pilgrimage is stumble and fall. Without our Lord we can only fall into the valley of the shadow of death, where there is no life and no light. We need our Dayspring from on high to disperse the gloomy clouds of night and put death's dark shadows to flight. Otherwise all we will see is our sin and our death, mourning in lowly exile here…and in hell. We need to repent of our sins and ask the Lord, our Emmanuel, to be with us and deliver us from evil.
The title Emmanuel is Hebrew for "God with us." This is the title of our Lord prophesied by Isaiah when he proclaimed to King Ahaz: "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" (Is. 7:14). This is the prophecy cited by St. Matthew in his account of the Savior's birth. And at the close of Matthew's Gospel, the Lord Himself says, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20b). The Lord is indeed with us. Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal. Our Emmanuel, our God with us, has come and ransomed us captives from the power of sin. He has paid our ransom with His very life. The Rod of Jesse's stem has from every foe delivered us; He has delivered us from the foes of sin and death and the old evil foe, the devil himself. In the Lord's mighty power to save He has brought us victory through His grave because He did not remain there but rose to show that death has no power over Him.
The risen and ascended Lord has not left us as orphans. He has not left us at all. Our Emmanuel still comes to us and is still with us. He has come to us tonight in His Word, and He tells us that you are forgiven for His sake. He has rescued and enlightened us. We are no longer in darkness and the shadow of death. We are in the light of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. As the Lord of light speaks through the prophet Isaiah: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has dawned" (Is. 9:2). The light of Christ shines on us, even as the sky outside is dark. The light of Christ shines brighter than any light in the sky, even the sun, and we bask in this most glorious light, the light of the Son of God, the Sun of Righteousness. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to you, O Israel, O sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ, and will come to you again, that you will be with Him who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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