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Scott P. Richert

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

By December 17, 2013

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If asked to name an Advent hymn, most people would reply, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." In fact, that may be the only Advent hymn they know by name, and small wonder: It is the most popular of all Advent hymns, and most parishes start singing it on the First Sunday in Advent.

But do you know where the hymn comes from?

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."

Every Advent, in the final week before Christmas Eve, the Catholic Church uses those antiphons in vespers (evening prayer) and at Mass--one for each day. To learn more about the history and significance of the antiphons, and to find the Latin text of each, check out The O Antiphons. (On that page, you can also find links to an English translation of each antiphon, which you can use in your prayers or Scripture readings for the final week of Advent.)

"O Come, O Come Emmanuel" will never seem the same again!

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December 15, 2009 at 3:21 pm
(1) Elizabeth says:

“Veni Emmanuel” originates in the medieval Roman Catholic Church 12 century translated into english by John Mason Neale 1818-1866.

December 24, 2012 at 3:12 am
(2) Mark Kolakowski says:

Indeed, the life and work of Neale has interested me for several years. He was a prolific translator and author of hymns, with an astounding 345 English texts credited to him by one count. Fluent in various ancient and modern languages, he was particularly interested in translating early hymns of the Eastern Church, and published a book on the subject.

Among Catholics, his other best-known translations are “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (from “In Dulci Jubilo” and often seen modified in parish missalettes these days into the gender-neutral “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”) and “All Glory, Laud and Honor” (frequently used as the processional hymn on Palm Sunday). “Good King Wenceslas” is one of his original works.

A priest in the Church of England, Neale was a proponent of the Oxford or Anglo-Catholic Movement, which eventually restored many traditional Catholic beliefs and practices to the C of E. At the time, however, this was a genuinely dangerous association: Neale endured physical attacks as well as a formal censure and lengthy suspension by his bishop. Nonetheless, he remained in the C of E rather than converting to Roman Catholicism, unlike some notable contemporaries such as future cardinals John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning.

Today, various Anglican churches around the world honor Neale in their calendars of saints on August 7 (he died on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration).

A footnote: the U.S. Episcopal Church also honors Catherine Winkworth on August 7, an English contemporary of Neale’s who translated many German hymns, among them the familiar “Now Thank We All Our God” and “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Some Lutheran churches also honor them together, but on July 1, the anniversary of Winkworth’s death.

December 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm
(3) tg says:

O Come O Come Emmanuel is my favorite Advent hymn. Advent and Christmas are the only times (except for Marian feast days) are the only times I get to hear a decent hymn that I can sing.

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