Advent Series: Meditation on O Come O Come Emmanuel

Advent Art by Gayla Irwin. You can see more of her work at gaylairwin.com

Let’s begin with a story. My great-grandmother, Gma, had a mental decline towards the end of her life. She had forgotten almost everything and lived in an assisted-care facility. My family visited her in Truth or Consequences (yes, real name), New Mexico. I was in high school, and dreaded it. It was awkward, she certainly would not remember us, I was uncomfortable with emotion and the closeness of death. 

My mother is an idea woman. She comes up with ideas and boldly tries them, often to great success, sometimes to her detriment (but mostly success). Her idea when we visited Gma was to sing to her. She had heard that music memories are stored in a different part of the brain, and that even when language had been lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes singing could unlock memories of words in song. I don’t think any of us, especially the teenage contingent, wanted to sing in a random nursing home when we thought that Gma wouldn’t even respond. 

But something beautiful and strange happened that day in Truth or Consequences. In a sterile, beige-colored room set aside for visitors, my family fumblingly began to sing “How Great Thou Art” a capella. And Gma, though she hadn’t been able to speak and certainly did not know who we were, in her tiny, quavering voice, began to sing with us. It was an unforeseen, mysterious moment of communion beyond the bodily ravages of illness and time, beyond the ugliness of a rural nursing home in New Mexico, beyond language and reason, facilitated through song.

This podcast inclines toward the intellectual, towards words and stories and critical thinking about their forms and meanings. This is how I naturally operate and of course I won’t entirely abandon it (for any Enneagram nerds, I’m a five). But Advent is mysterious. Like in the liturgy itself, time unravels. Though Jesus came 2000 years ago, in Advent we wait for him again. Though we are redeemed in his precious body, we call out for the redemption of our time, of our current bodies and places and spaces and beloved friends and family. Music can help us move beyond time and intellect’s limited grasp towards something of this mystery. When you sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, you lift your voice alongside 1200 years of Christians welcoming the Incarnate God, the tiny baby, savior of the world. I can hardly think of anything so tangible, other than the sacraments, that connects us to the great cloud of witnesses, our ancestors, as singing these songs of the past. So this Advent series focuses on Christmas and Advent carols, one at a time.

Our song for today is one of my favorites, O Come O Come Emmanuel. I love it partially because it is so ancient. Like so many of our songs, it was first crafted by monks, all the way back in the eighth century. In the liturgical order right before Christmas Eve, they chanted something called the “O Antiphons,” or the “Great O’s.” This was a list of addresses to Jesus by different names in the Old Testament, very popular in early and late medieval poetry and song:

O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

O Adonai (Hebrew name for God, the giver of the law)

O Radix Jesse (root or branch of Jesse, in the lineage of Jesus)

O Clavis David (key of David)

O Oriens (Morningstar or daystar)

O Rex Gentium (King of the Gentiles)

O Emmanuel (self-explanatory, from Isaiah’s prophecies)

There’s another thing about this list that makes me smile, because it’s such insight into the medieval character, those folks who loved puzzles and allegory and layer and layer of meaning more than almost anything. Do you remember acrostic poems? Those dreadful poems you’d write for your mom on Mother’s Day that spelled out her name with the initial letter of each line? Well, these original Latin verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel create a reverse acrostic in Latin: ero cras, which translates to “I shall be with you tomorrow.” So the song was often sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve, to fulfill Christ’s promise in the acrostic! It’s Jesus’s inside joke with his own nicknames!

Obviously this sounded very different than the version we sing today. How did it become the familiar tune we know and love? In the nineteenth century, the Victorians got very into all things medieval. In 1851, A man named J.M. Neale translated a thirteenth-century metrical version (i.e. poetry) into English and set it to music. From the sound of it, he was rather a disorganized man and did not tell what the source of the tune was. For a while, no one knew where this haunting, lovely melody that so fits the waiting, yearning themes of Advent—the same tune we sing today—came from. But in the twentieth century, a woman with two of the most amazing name associations discovered its origin. Mother Thomas More—birth name Dr. Mary Berry, in a fabulous martyrdom/Great British Bake-Off name collision—found its source, a fifteenth-century processional for French nuns. So when we sing this song, we sing in Victorian English, to a Renaissance melody for nuns, ancient Hebrew words with origins in the deep and distant past of the Old Testament, first strung together by Latin monks in the Dark Ages, and set to poetry by someone unknown in the Middle Ages. It’s a song that embodies the history of the Western Church. When my six-year-old sings it with Sufjan Stevens in the backseat of our car, she joins in with the unknown voices of ages. How beautiful, big, and transcendent is the body of Christ.

On the podcast, I sing O Come O Come, accompanied by my dad on the guitar, for the meditation. I suggest if you’re reading instead of listening, to sing the song to yourself, to reap the benefits of the music. I also have made a playlist, Old Books With Grace: Advent & Christmas, that you can check out on Spotify.

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

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, 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.

Which of Jesus’s titles stood out to you, upon this reading or singing?

I have recently responded most strongly to the idea of Jesus as Dayspring. Sometimes it seems like my people and nation are captive to an implacable, devouring darkness. Often it seems like hate captures imaginations more than love, or like tearing something down is easier than constructing something beautiful. Pride, fear, injustice, and refusal to acknowledge one another as full people dominates the public arena. I struggle with insomnia and anxiety, and at times it seems like the literal night will never end. But to name Jesus as the Dayspring is an act of hope that one day this present darkness will disintegrate in the light of the dawn and all motives and actions, ugly and beautiful, will be laid bare and exposed for what they are. It reminds me of the ending of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, where the human, tempted throughout the novel, dies in an air raid during WWII and suddenly sees everything in his life illuminated like the dawn, his rights and wrongs, his good and bad loves, his lies and the ways he’s been lied to, the beauties and joys of his life.

But the other titles too all illustrate a hope for what Jesus came to set right. Emmanuel—God With Us—he redeems our bodies, and our bodies matter, they are not merely our flesh trap while we wait for eternity. Rod of Jesse—this could also be root or branch of Jesse, but to describe him as a rod reflects both rootedness and the absolute justice of God. The Rod of Jesse beats off the thief of life. The Key of David opens heaven and fully realized communion with God and his saints, while locking the misery of sin away. And finally, Adonai, the lawgiver, fulfills the law of love. All of Christ’s titles reflect an active reality, not an abstract, passive hope for the next life. They are the fulfillment of “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven,” which reminds us that this life is not just a vale of tears and oppression, but a place where we are privileged to work the love of the Incarnate God. This song marries our future promise of heaven and the real end of misery to our concrete acts of love and justice as Christ’s pierced hands and feet in the world. There’s a real tension there that defies easy boundaries and simple answers. Sometimes you will be active in the work of love and it will feel good and come easily with rejoicing, sometimes you will cry out in the pain of the laboring world and all its hatred.

O Come asks us a serious question even as it yearningly praises our savior: as we wait for the Dayspring, who are you loving this week, with words or deeds or both? Is it just those easy to love, those like you or those you already like? Where are you doing your tiny part to make way for the justice of the Kingdom? On the flip side of that coin, where have you taken burdens upon yourself that don’t belong to you, that instead rest with Adonai, the Key of David, the Rod of Jesse, Emmanuel, and require you to wait, in stillness and silence?

The Advent Action for this week is to carve out a space for yourself in expectant solitude, away from holiday busy-ness and bustle, to meditate upon these questions. Go on a walk on your lunch break, even if it’s cold. Take a bath. Play quiet music in your room while hiding from your children. Pray to each title of Jesus in O Come and see if one particularly speaks to you at the moment. If you’d like to soak in some poetry about these names of Jesus, the O Antiphons, the poet Malcolm Guite has a beautiful series with both poetry and commentary to check out. And do not be afraid: he tells us in this song, ero cras, promising his presence with us.

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