O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Scripture References

Further Reflections on Scripture References

This ancient Advent hymn may date back to a community of fifth-century Jewish Christians and perhaps was part of their Hanukkah festival. The text does include many elements of the Hanukkah celebration-remembrance of wilderness wandering, darkness and death, but also celebration of light (the use of candles) and, above all, wonderment about the hope for Christ's return ("O").

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

In this song, it becomes clear that the one waited for is “Emmanuel—God with us.” The confessions of the church are very eager to identify that Emmanuel as the only Son of God “according to his divine nature” (Belgic Confession, Article 10). Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 11-13, Questions and Answers 29-34 put great effort into explaining why he is called Jesus, Christ, and God’s only begotten Son.

Tune Information

e minor or modal
Meter refrain 8.8


Musical Suggestion

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is a wonderful guide to the season of Advent.
A congregation can focus on this hymn during the month of Advent in a number of ways:
  • Use the hymn as a sermon: alternate readings from Scripture that correspond to each stanza with the singing of that stanza.
  • Sing one stanza each week of Advent after the Salutation and before the Prayer of Confession.
  • Have the choir sing the refrain as an introduction to the stanza.
  • Have handbells ring randomly during the singing of the hymn. As with most plainsong melodies, this creates an appropriate ethereal effect. Have the bells begin, wait a moment, line the melody out in a soft stop on the organ, and then have the congregation join in. Organists will want to look at Wilbur Held's setting of veni immanuel for a prelude or offertory, which appears in "A Nativity Suite" published by Concordia (97-4461). This setting is moderately easy and has a nice contrast of reeds playing "Rejoice! Rejoice!" and flutes playing the melody. It ends softly with the last part of the refrain reminding us of the opening phrase.
There is no more popular Advent hymn than "O Come, O Come, Immanuel," and it is one of the few hymns that keeps this season from being entirely eclipsed by Christmas on the radio. We need this hymn to help us anticipate the coming celebration of Christ's birth.
(from Reformed Worship, Issue 21)
— David C. Schaap

Hymn Story/Background

This ancient Advent hymn may date back to a community of fifth-century Jewish Christians and perhaps was part of their Hanukkah festival. In the ninth century the text entered the Roman liturgy for use during Advent.  John Mason Neale first translated this Latin verse into English; in subsequent years other hymnal editors made various changes, so that the current version is the work of many.
In the ninth century the text entered the Roman liturgy for use during Advent. In the week before Christmas the medieval church regularly sang seven "Great 'O' Antiphons" in conjunc­tion with the Magnificat during Vespers. Each of these an­tiphons included an Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. During the twelfth or thirteenth century these words were put in hymn form, in Latin, and the "Rejoice" refrain was added.
Although the Latin phrase in the refrain "nascetur pro te, Israel" has been translated "shall come to you," it really means "shall be born to you." Thus the original Latin hymn celebrated the first coming of the Christ. The translation, however, permits use of the hymn to celebrate both first and second comings.
VENI IMMANUEL was originally music for a Requiem Mass in a fifteenth-century French Franciscan Processional. Thomas Helmore adapted this chant tune and published it in Part II of his The Hymnal Noted (1854).
— Bert Polman

Author Information

John Mason Neale (b. London, England, 1818; d. East Grinstead, Sussex, England, 1866) translated this Latin verse into English and published it in his Medieval Hymns and Sequences (1851). In subsequent years other hymnal editors made various changes, including changing the order of the stanzas. Neale also gave copious scriptural references for the text in his Words of the Hymnal Noted (1855).
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, England, Thomas Helmore (b. Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England, 1811; d. Westminster, London, England, 1890) was ordained a priest in the Church of England, but his main contribution to the church was in music. He was precentor at St. Mark's College, Chelsea (1842-1877), and master of the choristers in the Chapel Royal for many years. He promoted unaccompanied choral services and played an important part in the revival of plainchant in the Anglican Church. Helmore was involved in various publications of hymns, chants, and carols, including A Manual of Plainsong (1850) and The Hymnal Noted (with John Mason Neale).
— Bert Polman

Song Notes

This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Roman Catholic Advent liturgy. On each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. When we sing each verse of this hymn, we acknowledge Christ as the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophesies. We sing this hymn in an already-but not yet- kingdom of God.  Christ’s first coming gives us reason to rejoice again and again, and yet we know that all is not well with the world. So along with our rejoicing, we plead using the words of this hymn that Christ would come again, to perfectly fulfill the promise that all darkness will be turned to light. The original text created a reverse acrostic: “ero cras,” which means, “I shall be with you tomorrow.” That is the promise we hold to as we sing this beautiful hymn.
— Laura de Jong
Hymnary.org does not have a score for this hymn.