Advent Hymn: “O come, O come, Emmanuel”

This Advent, we’re looking at three Advent hymns. Today I planned to talk about one of the three or so Latin hymns I know of, “Veni, veni, Emmanuel,” better known by its English translation “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” Rebecca Miller already talked about it a couple of weeks ago on her blog, and a commenter there explained most of what I know about the hymn, but I still think it’s worth spending a little time on it here.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that morns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from every foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

Which is a verse translation of the Latin:

Veni veni, Emmanuel
captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, O Sapientia,
quae hic disponis omnia,
veni, viam prudentiae
ut doceas et gloriae.

Veni, veni, Adonai,
qui populo in Sinai
legem dedisti vertice
in maiestate gloriae.

Veni, O Iesse virgula,
ex hostis tuos ungula,
de spectu tuos tartari
educ et antro barathri.

Veni, Clavis Davidica,
regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum,
et claude vias inferum.

Veni, veni O Oriens,
solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas,
dirasque mortis tenebras.

Veni, veni, Rex Gentium,
veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos
peccati sibi conscios.

It’s not quite right to call that Latin text a hymn. It’s actually seven “antiphons” (which is to say, “choral or congregational responses”) for the seven days before Christmas, with the last day’s text made the first verse here but otherwise in order.

(Which produces a somewhat interesting acrostic: if you take the verses in date order, and take the first letter of the title in the first line of each verse (except “Iesse virgula”), it spells out “ERO CRAS,” which means, roughly, “I am coming tomorrow”—a suitable message for the last day of Advent!)

Looking at the corresponding verses in the Latin and English texts (and trying to remember things from my three semesters of Latin), I’m struck by the closeness of the translation for long stretches, but also by differences that are significant. For example, in the Latin, the second line of the second verse is further vocative description, not a request beyond “Come”: those two lines are, more literally, “Come, O Wisdom, who thus orders all things.” And in the “Key of David” verse, “heavenly home” is a translator’s addition for the purpose of the rhyme—“open the heavenly kingdom” is closer—and the last line of that verse in the English bears little resemblance to the Latin, which is roughly “and close the roads to hell.”

This divergence is perhaps widest in the last verse above; its Latin means, roughly, “Come, come, King of the Nations, come, Redeemer of all, to save your guilty servants from their sins.” (The interaction of the cases of the nouns and pronoun in the last line is giving me particular trouble, but the approximate sense of the whole is fairly clear.)

As a poet myself, I can understand why a translator trying to make the English fit both the meter and the rhyme scheme of the Latin would make these choices, and if I had to attempt the translation under those constraints I would probably have come up with something far worse. (And the phrase “Desire of Nations” is one I suspect the original author(s) might well have used, had it fit the meter, though not instead of “King of the nations” as the translators used it.) But I wish more of the lost substance of those verses had made it into the English.

But even before I learned about its origin in the “O Antiphons,” before I had any formal training in Latin, even before I really understood what Advent is and its distinction from and relationship to Christmas, I’ve always loved this hymn. This was partly because I knew it was a Latin hymn, and even before I could make the first beginnings of an understanding of what an arbitrary Latin text meant I’ve loved the sound of Latin—or at least the feeling of singing in that language. (I’m quite fond of one Latin Christmas hymn, “Gaudete,” and count another, “Personent hodie,” among my favorite hymns.)

Another reason, I think, that I’ve always loved this hymn is that the mood of longing is so well conveyed by the standard tune, which then breaks into a happier tone for the two lines of the refrain. The best word I can think of for this hymn tune is “penetrating,” and to have it paired with a text for which it is almost perfectly suited, which then goes on for a total of seven verses, is a delight.

And most recently, as I have come to understand the cycle of the Christian year and Advent in particular, I have come to love this hymn because it captures the Church’s longing, the central message of Advent: that it is not just about God’s Incarnation in an infant in Bethlehem, though that is certainly part of it, but far more.

Come, Emmanuel, King of the nations, come! And may we be ready for your coming!

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