For the second Sunday in Advent we come to a familiar hymn which is a favorite of many, and has spread to most denominations in one form or another.
The O Antiphons are a collection of Latin texts which were sung in the Roman Catholic Church during Advent, one each night from December 17 to 23. Theie date of origin is unclear, but apparently was no later than the eighth century. These antiphons contain many different Scripture references which can be seen at the link above. A later Latin hymn (1710) of only five stanzas was apparently the conduit which led to the English version by John Mason Neale in his Hymnal Noted (1854), which began "Draw nigh, draw nigh Emmanuel." Neale's version was not a strict translatuon, and gave more attention to the part of each stanza which is a petition. When the hymn was later published in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), the familiar first line was now in place.
The tune was arranged by Thomas Helmore, the musical editor of the Hymnal Noted, and attributed to an old plainsong melody. However, for many years no original version was known, and there was speculation that Helmore might have composed the melody himself. Finally, in the 1960s, the original melody (though not set to any text related to the O Antiphons) was discovered in a fifteenth-century manuscript belonging to a French convent.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from every tyranny;
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of thy people be;
Before thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on thy mercy call.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of humankind;
Bid thou our sad divisions cease,
And be thyself our Source of peace
Latin, tr. composite
Tune: VENI EMMANUEL (L.M. with refrain)
plainsong, Mode I,
adapt. Thomas Helmore, 1854
As this hymn spread across different denominations, there were many alterations in the text (including abridgements) and tune. Prominent theologian Henry Sloane Coffin made his own revisions in 1916, including this version of the final stanza:
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease,
And fill the world with heaven's peace.
Coffin's alterations were later described by H. Augustine Smith in his Lyric Religion (1931) as "more acceptable than Neale's in their greater freedom and spiritual kinship with the modern church." Nearly a century later, hymnal editors continue to strive for that modern relevance in this and many other texts.
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