One of the best summations of God’s promises to Israel and mankind is as close as your nearest hymnal.
I want you to imagine yourself in a monastery in the eighth century. It is December 17th and you’ve gathered with your brothers for Vespers, the sunset prayer service.
As with all Vespers, at the heart of the service is the chanting of select psalms, each of them preceded and followed by what is known as an antiphon, a sung or recited response.
What sets apart December 17th, and the six nights that follow it, are the seven antiphons used only on these nights. Each one is a name of Christ—specifically, they are Messianic titles from the book of Isaiah: Sapienta (Wisdom), Adonai (Lord), Radix (Root of Jesse), Clavis (Key of David), Oriens (Dayspring), Rex (King of the Nations), and Emmanuel.
Because each of these titles is preceded by the word “O” they are known as the “O Antiphons.”
If this sounds familiar, it should. I have just given you a glimpse into the origins of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”—the greatest Advent, or should I say Christian, hymn of all time.
While I asked you to imagine an eighth century monastery, the O Antiphons predate the eighth century. The Roman philosopher Boethius, who lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, alludes to them in his writings. It’s reasonable to suppose, as one scholar put it, that “in some fashion the O Antiphons have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.”
But it’s what they teach us, and not just their antiquity, that gives them their power. The composer and musicologist Robert Greenberg has noted that if you take the first letter of each of the Messianic titles in reverse order, by December 23rd you will have the Latin phrase Ero Cras, “tomorrow I will come.”
Whether this was intentional or an instance of perceiving a pattern where none was intended, there is no denying that the message of the antiphons and the resulting hymn is the literally awe-inspiring faithfulness of God. All of God’s promises to His people are fulfilled in the One whose coming we sing about.
He is Sapienta, the Wisdom of God, upon whom the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and knowledge and fear of the Lord rested (Isaiah 11). He is Adonai, the Lord our lawgiver and judge, who will save us (Isaiah 33). He is the root of Jesse’s stem, whom the Gentiles will seek out and whose dwelling will be glorious (Isaiah 11). He is Oriens, the Radiant Dawn, the light that has shined upon the people who dwelt in darkness (Isaiah 9).
He is all these things and so much more.
To sing all seven verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and ponder their meaning is to join Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter morning and have our eyes opened to us. Starting with Moses and the prophets, the entirety of scripture is ultimately about Jesus.
Every time we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” during this Advent season, we are participating in one of the most venerable expressions of the faith itself.
The setting may have changed, but the truth expressed remains the same: God’s awe-inspiring faithfulness.
Further Reading and Information
Salvation History in One Hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The verses of this hymn sung during the Advent season encapsulate the messianic nature of Christ as few others do. Click on the links below to discover further details about “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and to enjoy an a cappella performance of the beloved Christmas carol.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
lyrics and facts
Advent Through the Ages: The O Antiphons
Glenn Sunshine | ColsonCenter.org | December 14, 2015
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The King’s Singers