“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)
There is a practice in the ancient church of putting small bits of text before the Magnificat and other canticles, which are known as antiphons. These are often set to coincide with the church calendar, and their words were chanted by monks and others in their daily cycle of services.
In the eight and ninth centuries, a set of antiphons for the final week of Advent were developed which became known as the O Antiphons, for the very good reason that they were antiphons and all began with the word “O’.
All very interesting, I hear you sigh, but I’m not a monk or a nun. Who cares about these antiphons? I came for hymns, not antiphons! Well, in the nineteenth century these were translated by one J M Neale, and made into a series of verses. This was then paired with a medieval chant, and we now sing this each Christmas as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Each verse refers to a different description of Christ. He is the Emmanuel of Isaiah 7:14, and the Rod of Jesse spoken of in Isaiah 11:1. He is the dayspring from on high of Luke 1:78, and the Key of David of Isaiah 22:22 and Revelation 3:7. He is the Lord of Might of Exodus 19 who gave the law to Israel.
All this, in Advent, reminds us that the story didn’t begin at Bethlehem, but was set in motion long before.
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: Refrain
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: Refrain
O 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: Refrain
O come, O come, thou Lord of Might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe: Refrain