Music Notes | Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Favorite hymn no. 5

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

The culmination of Evening Prayer every day of the year is the singing of the Song of Mary (Luke 1.46–55). A special series of antiphons (short text sung before and after, pointing out some particular theme of the canticle or of the feast or season) to the Song of Mary is traditionally used on the days leading up to Christmas, drawing upon the prophetic books of the Old Testament and summarizing the purpose of the season of waiting and preparation. Each of these, known as the ‘O Antiphons’, names an attribute or historical name of God, such as ‘O Sapientia [O Wisdom]…’, the first of them.

A Latin hymn loosely based upon five of the ‘O Antiphons’ was published in 1710. This text has been translated into English many times, with additions to match the rest of the antiphons, and is found as ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ [56] in the Hymnal 1982. Below is a summary the Scriptural origins and symbolism of each stanza in date order (the date associated with each stanza / antiphon is printed in the Hymnal).

O Wisdom

Wisdom is a central figure in several books of the canonical and deutero-canonical Scriptures (see Sirach 24.3, Wisdom 8.1, Proverbs 8.22–31), where she is said to have existed before the world, to dwell with God, and to act as God’s agent in creation. She appeared among humans, revealing God or reflecting God’s image, glory, and goodness, and inviting us to feast at her table. In Christian theology the figure of Wisdom has been more or less conflated with the concept of the Logos, the Word, a term used to describe Christ and his cosmic role in similar terms (see John 1 and Colossians 1.15–19).

O Adonai

Adonai is the Hebrew word for ‘Master’ or ‘Lord’ and is commonly used in place of the proper name of the God of Israel as revealed to Moses, YHWH (Exodus 3 and 6.3), whose exact pronunciation and exact meaning are not certain. (This is why YHWH is replaced in most English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures with ‘The LORD’). The divine Name is the object of much contemplation in mystical Judaism; the Name of Jesus, in which Christian prayer is always made, evokes its own reverence borne of the Tradition’s witness to its power, and is celebrated with a feast on January 1.

O Root of Jesse

Jesse was King David’s father. Both the Matthean and Lucan genealogies set forth Our Lord as being (adoptively, anyway) of the lineage of David, and David himself is often seen as a type of Christ. The shoot growing from the stock or root or stump of Jesse is part of the prophetic vision that a remnant of the nation of Israel would be saved after exile and destruction, and would return to Jerusalem and reestablish the covenant people; Christ was readily identified as this scion. (See Isaiah 11.1, 10; 62.10; 52.15; Zechariah 6.12–13; Romans 15.12.)

O Key of David

This image originates in Isaiah (22.22), in which the key of the house of David is given to Eliakim, who became palace master in the kingdom of Judah just before its fall to Assyria and thus controlled access to the king. This image has certainly underlain the traditional interpretation of Our Lord’s giving of the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven’ to St Peter. Ultimately the Revelation to St John (3.7) tells us that Christ himself is the keeper of the key that opens the gates of death’s prison. We might also think of Christ ‘opening the Scriptures’ and ‘opening the eyes’ of the disciples on the road to, and at supper at, Emmaus after his resurrection.

O Dayspring

‘Dayspring’ translates oriens, which means ‘rising’ (i.e. dawn) and, by extension, the east. From time immemorial it has been natural to associate light, sun, and day with the Deity, and it is appropriate to apply this symbolism to Christ – all the more so at the winter solstice. Christ is Light and Sun, Morning Star, also (in Colossians 1 mentioned above) a reflection of the light of the Father. See Revelation 22.16, Malachi 4.2, Luke 1.76–79, Wisdom 7.26, Hebrews 1.3.

O [King and] Desire of the Nations

The passage from Haggai in which the phrase ‘desire of all nations’ (2.7) is found was written after Cyrus of Persia had conquered Babylon and issued a decree allowing the exiled Jews to return to Judea. Work had begun, and then stopped, on the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem; Haggai was concerned that the work should continue, and his prophecy urges that God will be with Israel, that the Temple will be restored, that ‘the latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former’. The ‘desire of nations’ has easily been identified with Christ, and this phrase is found in a number of hymns. Christ is the one who makes Jews and Gentiles one people (Ephesians 2.14–20), in a ministry of reconciliation in which, as the Prayer Book Catechism says, the Church participates.

O Emmanuel

Emmanuel, as St Matthew’s Gospel tells us (1.22–23), means ‘God is with us’. The son of whose birth Isaiah speaks in 7.14 as well as in chapter 9 (‘unto us a child is born…’) is of course taken by Christian tradition to refer to Our Lord himself, and to be the fulfillment of the prophetic vision that God would dwell with us, that his Law would be written on our hearts, that his Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, that all nations should come and stream to his light.

The tune

The tune associated with the English translation of the Latin hymn was first printed with it in 1854. The source quoted by the musical editor of the collection in which it appeared could not be traced by subsequent scholars, and the tune was thought to be his own composition or adaptation. But in 1966 the tune was discovered in a fifteenth-century French manuscript (with a funeral text), along with a second voice-part meant to accompany it. We present the hymn this week with this original form of this music.

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