O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Over the last years, since moving to Indiana, I have been blessed to have a Christmas dinner with some of my closest friends, and they introduced me to a fun custom at the start of the meal: each person has to say one of the things they love most about Christmas. For me it is easy, and I usually give the same predictable answer: the music, especially the very old hymns and songs of the season. 

Christmas music — especially the bland secular songs — is all around us during this time of year. But do you ever stop to listen and actually focus on the lyrics? To be sure, while “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” may be catchy for some, the lyrics are less than edifying. But the powerful songs and hymns of Christmas are worth a closer look. They convey something important to all of us. Look at “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” for example. The first verse declares,  

“O come, O come, Emmanuel 
And ransom captive Israel 
That mourns in lonely exile here 
Until the Son of God appear 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.” 

In one verse, we have a beautiful summation of our hope and a prayer of gratitude for Christ’s saving work. As Dennis Emmons points out in our cover story this month (“What Are the O Antiphons?”), the origins of the song make it one of the oldest of the Christian hymns, and it is a great connection to the O Antiphons, about which he writes this month. From Dec. 17 of each Advent season, we mark seven days with a special antiphon known as an O Antiphon that is read before the Magnificat during evening prayer. The name is taken from the exclamation that starts each one, and hence they are called the “O” Antiphons, and they herald for us the coming of Christ into the world. 

The O Antiphons and a song like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” point to what then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, called the very connection between memory and hope. The future pope noted: “Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope” (“Seek That Which Is Above,” 1986). A blessed Advent! TCA 

Matthew Bunson, D.Min., M.Div., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com