Encouraging a higher standard for Christian music

Discovering the Songs of Christmas
Meditations on Our Traditonal Carols and Christmas Hymns
Author: Robert Cottrill
(Book Excerpt/ Release Date: December 2009)




In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1–3)

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. (Micah 5:2)

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)


It Began As One Word

As with other hymns, the origins of our Christmas carols are varied and sometimes quite interesting. But few have a more unusual history than this first selection. It began as one single word! On occasion, I’ve asked a congregation to guess what they thought that word might be. They suggested such terms as Jesus, birth, manger, Mary, and Immanuel. But all are incorrect.

The carol is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (alternately spelled Immanuel). To trace the song’s beginnings, we have to go back about fourteen centuries to the early Middle Ages. Each day during the week before Christmas, churches of that era read what is called the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise recorded in Luke 1:46–55. Before and after the reading, vocalists sang an antiphon, with choral groups answering back and forth. (This is called antiphonal or responsive singing.) The antiphon anticipating the birth of Christ consisted of a single word—a long, drawn out “O.” Known as the “Great O of Advent,” it was intended to express a hopeful yearning for the coming of the Messiah.

In most Bibles we simply need to turn a page or two to get from Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, to Matthew, the first in the New. But a great deal of time passed between them. Malachi prophesied concerning the work of John the Baptist (Mal. 3:1; cf. Matt. 11:10), but it was four more centuries before he came on the scene. Sometimes those years are referred to as the “400 Silent Years,” since it seems no inspired prophecy came from God during that time. No doubt the silence stirred a growing sense of anticipation among the saints. When would the Lord fulfill the prophecies given so long before? When would the Promised One come?

In Jerusalem, two who wondered and hoped for the coming Messiah were elderly Simeon and Anna. The Bible says Simeon was “waiting for the Consolation [the Consoler] of Israel.” And when he saw the baby Jesus he confessed that he could “depart in peace” because “My eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:25, 29–30). Widowed Anna lived in the temple complex, giving herself to fasting and prayer. When she saw the infant Jesus, she “spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (vv. 37–38).

A kind of spiritual hunger among the people of God was evident in Israel before Jesus was born. Faithful saints were waiting and looking earnestly for His coming. Their zealous devotion was later given voice in the Great O of Advent. In his book, Great Hymns, hymn historian W. J. Limmer Shepppard describes it as almost “a cry of distress.” (1923, 21) It expressed an urgent plea for deliverance from on high.

As time went by, various unknown individuals added other words to the “O” for each of the seven days it was used. Each became a unique prayer, incorporating a description of the Lord Jesus. “O Key of David, unlock the prison house” was sung on one day and “O Dayspring, come and give us light” on another. Finally, someone thought of combining the antiphons into a single Latin hymn. Then in 1851 John Mason Neale (1818–1856) translated the words of the song into English giving us the carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Neale’s great gift to the Christian church was his translation work. He brought to English-speaking Christians some of the treasury of Greek and Latin hymns from long ago. This one anticipates the Christmas season, saying in one stanza,

O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;

From depths of hell Thy people save

And give them victory o’er the grave.

The Lord Jesus was born to do just that! As the Bible declares, “O Death, where is your sting? . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:55, 57). Through faith in the salvation purchased on Calvary we can be saved eternally.


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