“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is my favorite Christmas carol. One reason is that it’s a beautiful hymn with rich, biblically grounded lyrics. But what sets it apart from many other Christmas carols is that it captures what I call the mournful joy of Christmas. We rejoice because Christ came into the world to save his people, but we recognize that our redemption was accomplished because that innocent baby in the manger became the suffering servant, lifted up between two thieves in a Roman crucifixion. This baby we see represented at Christmas in bucolic scenes with shepherds and farm animals was born to be a sacrifice for the sins of all who would believe in him.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanual” captures this mixture of joy and mournfulness through a combination of music and lyrics. Even when the lyrics say “Rejoice!”, the music has a mournful tone. I’m sure someone in the music ministry can explain how that’s accomplished, I just know it works beautifully.
The lyrics for the song are quite old. According to learnreligions.com:
Its origins go back almost 1,500 years, to medieval Europe, where an unknown author wrote seven antiphons—short lines to be sung before and after psalms. Those seven antiphons all begin with the “O,” and thus became known as “The O Antiphons.”
Centuries later, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neal, translated these medieval “antiphons” from Latin into English and wrote the Christmas carol we know today. Interestingly, the melody was also not entirely original but an adaptation of a much older French hymn. The Christian History Institute tells us that Neal used a 15th-century funeral hymn for Franciscan nuns as the basis for the melody – which I guess accounts for the mournfulness you hear. Neal is also responsible for the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
This year, as you celebrate the Savior’s birth, remember that the baby in the manger was born to “ransom captive Israel,” and rejoice at the gift of eternal life made possible by his sacrifice.