The “O” Hymns of Christmas

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

The “O” Antiphons

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one of the better-known hymns sung during the Advent season. This hymn originated in the Middle Ages, around A.D. 800, as an antiphon, or anthem. It is a synthesis of the great “O Antiphons” that are used for Vespers during the eight days before Christmas (Dec. 17-23). The antiphon was sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers each day. The antiphons are, in fact, a collection of Old Testament types of Christ. Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah.

These antiphons were restructured into verse form in the 1100s and was eventually published in Latin in 1710. The hymn was later discovered, translated, and published in 1851 by John Mason Neale, an Anglican minister.

What do these antiphons tell us about Jesus?

On December 17th, Jesus is addressed as “O Wisdom” who comes from the mouth of the Most High. The hymn prays “to us the path of knowledge show And teach us in her ways to go” (ELH #110:2). St. John declared that “the Word was God” who made all things and who became flesh. Jesus taught the wisdom of God, that the way to the Father is through Him alone.

Jesus is addressed on December 18th as “O Lord.” The antiphon and hymn mention Jesus as the giver of the law on Mt. Sinai, “In cloud and majesty and awe” (ELH 110:3). But the antiphon ends with the prayer, “Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.” As Lord, Jesus came with divine might to conquer our enemies and give us salvation.

“O Root of Jesse” was the name given for December 19th. Isaiah prophesied: “There shall come forth a Rod [Root] from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). The kingdom of David, Jesse’s son, had been cut down. But the stump was not dead, because Jesus came as a Branch of David, a King who delivered us from Satan, sin, and death.

The antiphon for December 20th addressed Jesus as “O Key of David.” Again Isaiah said: “The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he will open, and no one shall shut; and he will shut, and no one can open” (Isaiah 22:22). These keys are Law—which closes heaven to unbelievers, and Gospel—which opens heavens to those who believe on Jesus as their Savior. In our hymn we pray: “And open wide our heav’nly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery” (ELH 110:5)

“O Dayspring” is said on December 21, reflects the prophecy of Malachi: “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2) and of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). The rays [wings] of the Son of God bring healing to our soul through faith in the Gospel. Therefore we sing, “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; and death’s dark shadows put to flight” (ELH 110:6).

On December 22nd, the liturgy praises Jesus with the title “O King of the Nations.” Isaiah declares that the Son that God gave is also “the Prince of Peace.” Haggai prophesied: “I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations” (Haggai 2:7). The emphasis is that this King is given for all people, for He will become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

On the day before Christmas, Jesus is called “O Emmanuel,” a Hebrew word that means “God is with us.” This word is used by Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

The antiphon prays: “O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.” Our hymn asks “O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel” (ELH 110:1).

As we sing the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we are asking the Christ-child to come to us as our Lord, King and Savior. These “O antiphons” move us from the shadows of the Old Testament waiting for the Messiah to come, into the light of the New Testament revelation about Jesus and His birth. May the Lord bless us as we draw near to celebrating Christmas and God’s salvation.

(Credit to St. Timothy Lutheran Church-ELS)