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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, arr. Sir David Willcocks

Rev. Scott A. Haynes


This well-known carol (Veni, veni, Emmanuel) takes us back over 1,200 years to monastic life in the 8th- or 9th-century. In the days before Christmas Eve, monasteries would sing the “O antiphons” in anticipation of Christmas Eve when the eighth antiphon, “O Virgo virginum” (“O Virgin of virgins”) would be sung before and after Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55).


The Latin metrical form of the hymn was composed as early as the 12th century. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), discovered the Latin hymn in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,” with a refrain. Neale, a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, included it in his influential collection, Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851). British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons:

“The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”

Each antiphon begins as follows:

O Sapentia (Wisdom) O Adonai (Hebrew word for God) O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse) O Clavis David (key of David) O Oriens (dayspring) O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles) O Emmanuel

Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” All of the Latin attributions to the coming Messiah are from the Old Testament except “Emmanuel,” which is found both in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. Matthew quotes Isaiah virtually verbatim—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”—with the exception that Matthew adds the phrase: “which being interpreted is, God with us.” The “O Emmanuel” antiphon was traditionally sung on the night before Christmas Eve, revealing the meaning of the liturgical riddle through the completion of the acrostic.


Carols from King's 2016 | #7 "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge

Director: Stephen Cleobury


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