STLT#225, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

We have seen recast lyrics before, but this section of Advent and Christmas songs will include some of the most obvious-to-us recasts, for those who grew up listening to Christmas carols on the radio, in shopping malls, and on albums.  In some cases, the changes feel conciliatory, in order to make some folks more comfortable. But in others, they are beautiful and bring a new or stronger meaning to the carol. So that we can compare, I’ll include “original” lyrics as well – although what is original is always up for grab with songs like this. But I’ll do my best. (Unless they seem far off from my memory, I’ll use lyrics from

Anyway, I consider this one to be in the beautiful with stronger meaning category. This carol finds it origins as early as the 9th century as a lush Latin text that was turned into an English lyric in the 19th century by John Mason Neale, and then set to an 11th century Franciscan plainsong chant.

Neale’s lyric begins familiarly, like this:

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

…and continues for a total of seven verses, most of which highlight the prophesies found in the Old Testament and expounding on the names for the Messiah:

“Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, Mt 1:23) means “God with us”
“Adonai” (Exodus 19:16) is a name for God, the giver of the law
“Branch of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) refers to Jesus’ lineage
“Oriens” (Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78-79) is the morning star or daystar
“Key of David” (Isaiah 22:22) again refers to Jesus’ lineage

Our version expands the scope beyond the children of Israel to all people, grounded in the Universalist understanding that hope and salvation is for all souls, and that the appearance of a messiah would bring broader help and healing to us all. I love the expansiveness of this recast, and I don’t find myself upset at all that the particulars are expanded. I believe the intent of the carol remains, and it becomes – for me at least – a richer hymn.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and with your captive children dwell.
Give comfort to all exiles here, and to the aching heart bid cheer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Love to dwell.

O come, you Splendor very bright, as joy that never yields to might.
O come, and turn all hearts to peace, that greed and war at last shall cease.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Truth to dwell.

O come, you Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by your presence here.
And dawn in every broken soul as vision that can see the whole.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Light to dwell.

O come, you Wisdom from on high, from depths that hide within a sigh,
to temper knowledge with our care, to render every act a prayer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Hope to dwell.

I also find it a lot easier to preach to a Unitarian Universalist crowd. I have used this carol as a frame for an Advent service, which I conducted in four movements. I call it What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and the link goes to the version I led at the First Universalist Church of Southold.

I am a fan. I like the original, but I love our version.

  1. I like our version, too, except for the scansion on that troublesome “ve-e-ery” in the first line of the second verse. That has always struck me as clumsy, and I wish the wordsmiths had kept at it until they came up with something better.

    Also, I’m surprised that in your first paragraph you mention listening to carols on the radio etc. but you didn’t say anything about SINGING them. I grew up singing carols — in school (public), in church (Unitarian), at caroling parties, and all over the place. It never occurred to me as a child that the words were often out of synch with the theology I was learning in Sunday School. They were CHRISTMAS CAROLS after all, and therefore sacrosanct.

    This issue came up every year in our ministry, and we just said to people “Sing whatever words you want,” acknowledging that some would welcome the new words while others would insist on the words they had learned as children. There are some battles not worth fighting.

    1. Heh – funny I didn’t say sing, but then it was impossible to listen to music without singing, so they are inextricably tied in my mind. In fact, I even sing along with instrumentals. 🙂

  2. […] with an eye to expansiveness. I appreciate their hard work – and as I reflected in O Come Emmanuel, I think they often hit the […]

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