History of the song
Today’s selection is possibly the oldest Christmas carol that is still in use. It is a Victorian translation (by John M. Neale, 1851) of a 12th-century Latin carol, which was in turn adapted from a set of 8th century monastic antiphons.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a guided tour of traditional Christian interpretations of Old Testament prophecy. Each stanza calls up a major theme of Messianic prophecy, drawing upon at least one major verse that Christians have seen as a reference to Christ. I know that this interpretive tradition raises many major, often heated, questions and objections. Let’s bracket those for the sake of this post, so as to focus on unpacking what this hymn is trying to tell us.
Three common notes for all the verses. First, each one is a prayer to Jesus under a variety of prophetic names. The refrain is the answer to the prayer: Rejoice, Emmanuel will surely come!
Second, this hymn is pretty much the embodiment of the tension between already and not yet. It anticipates both the birth and return of Christ. It is at once the song of Israel awaiting her Messiah, and that of the Church awaiting His return.
Third, much of this song is a running commentary on Isaiah 11, and many of its images of Jesus Christ derive from that passage.
Read the whole thing.
Hope everyone had a nice Christmas. The new year is almost upon us….