The original author of O Come, O Come Emmanuel is unknown, but it was most likely an 8th or 9th century monk or nun. Roughly 1000 years later, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale discovered the song while reading Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum, an ancient book of Latin poetry and music.
Neale lived in the Madeira Islands near the continent of Africa, where he had started an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. He spoke many languages, including Latin, and was able to translate O Come, O Come Emmanuel into English. He first played and sang it for the people he served, who were considered the lowest of society. It was so well received that Neale included the song in his 1851 collection titled Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences.
The song is written as if you are in the first century and you are awaiting the actual birth of the Messiah. An anticipation is there for what Jesus would bring. The original Latin text contains seven antiphons (verses) which work together to help the reader or singer focus on the coming Christmas. Most modern versions do not include all seven and rarely in the same order as the original. Here are those verses in order and their related meanings:
- O Sapentia (Wisdom)
- O Adonai (Hebrew for God)
- O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
- O Clavis David (Key of David)
- O Oriens (Dayspring)
- O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
- O Emmanuel (God with Us)
You can see from the order above that the 8th and 9th century Christians who declared these verses sang them in the opposite order than most people today. Back then, they wouldn’t sing the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” verse until Christmas Eve. They did this because it was the fulfillment of the song and of the expectation of the Messiah.
The original Latin text creates a reverse acrostic which is not fulfilled or seen until the last verse is sung. When the ancient worshipers finally sang this verse on Christmas Eve, the reverse acrostic was solved for all the see. The message it proclaimed was “I shall be with you tomorrow.”
Click here to hear For King and Country’s version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Click here for Anna Hawkins version in English and Hebrew filmed in Israel
*Image courtesy of Tim Umphreys