Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

John Mason Neale was born on January 24, 1818, in Bloomsbury, London. Neale’s father was an Anglican minister. He received his name from a Puritan cleric, John Mason, one of the first hymn writers in the Anglican Church and also an ancestor of Neale’s mother Susanna.

Neale was a gifted student and writer who purportedly spoke 22 different languages. Despite his academic gifts, Neale was relegated to serving as warden of Sackville College, a home for indigent men, a humble and low paying position where he spent nearly his entire ministry. In 1854, Neale founded the sisterhood of St. Margaret, a group of women dedicated to helping the poor, sick and needy.

Although Neale was a humble, caring pastor, he suffered resistance to his ministry and was even attacked and mauled during the funeral procession of one of the sisters of St. Margaret.

Why was such a gifted, loving and humble pastor so despised in his day? John Mason Neale was high church. That means he promoted the use of liturgical rites and symbols which had been a part of the Christian church for centuries.

At the time, however, many in the Anglican Church distrusted anyone who seemed too Roman Catholic. Some feared that Neale and others like him were agents of the Vatican trying to bring the Anglican Church back under the papacy.

John Mason Neale, however, was not a closet Roman Catholic. He simply treasured the wealth of words and symbols found throughout the history of the Church. Neale was a scholar who enjoyed reading ancient Greek and Latin texts of the Church.

One evening, as he read a book of old Latin hymns called Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, he discovered an Advent hymn based on a series of ancient Latin chants called the O Antiphons.

The O Antiphons dated back to the Middle Ages and were meant to be sung on the seven days before Christmas, as Christians prepared their hearts to celebrate Christ’s birth.

Neale translated the hymn into English. You may have heard of it. It is arguably the most well-known Advent hymn sung by Christians today – Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel.

The hymn is an invitation to the promised Savior to come and rescue his people from “Satan’s tyranny” and the “depths of hell.” The hymn is a call to Christians to rejoice because Emmanuel – literally, “God with us” – is coming.

But then again, you may not have heard of the hymn. You may not even know what Advent is. Over the last few centuries, many churches, especially in the United States, have lost Advent.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. Christmas carols, both Christian and secular, bring a smile to my face and joy to my heart. But it saddens me that in our rush to Christmas, Advent gets lost. In our rush to sing Christmas Carols, we lose the joy of preparing our hearts and minds with hymns like Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel.

I hope I don’t get mauled on the way to a funeral, but like John Mason Neale, I think we need to be careful not to lose the treasure of hymns and symbols which have been passed down to us throughout the centuries. They express the beauty of the gospel and the depth of our doctrine. They tie us to Christians from every generation.

So, in your rush to Christmas, don’t forget about Advent. Don’t forget to sing Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel.

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  6 comments for “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

  1. Kim Lahaie Day
    December 14, 2015 at 7:02 am

    The theme for our Advent worship has been some of the pictures from this hymn. Most recently was a sermon about the ‘key of David’ and ‘dayspring from on high’. Thanks for this background on the writer and the hymn.

  2. Kenneth
    December 14, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Thanks, Love the Hymn, did not know the history.

  3. Gregg
    December 14, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Our church does not put up any Christmas trees or any Christmas decoations until after the last midweek Advent service, so that we do not short change the season of Advent. This season is rich is meaning, if we only take the time to focus on why Christmas was so necessary for our world. If we focus on Christmas during advent , people are so sick of hearing about Christmas, that many want to take down the tree and Christmas decoations, the day after Christmas. The day after Christmas people are already planning their New Year’s celebrations.

  4. December 16, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Wow, the history behind this cherished hymn is astonishing! I agree that we can’t lose the treasure of tradition passed on to us. Something I continually recognize, especially in American churches is that reverence has been greatly lacking. A return to Advent and a return to the hymns that can speak deeply to us would be refreshing. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Charlotte
    November 28, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    I had a conversation in this vein with the wife of the music minister at my husband’s church. They are very high on contemporary worship blended with traditional parts of service and lots of praise music. My point was that the church in general seems to be sacrificing the incredibly rich heritage of music the Lutheran Church has nourished through the centuries. She was quick to say they were not trying to do that. I then suggested that we were raising a whole generation or more of Christians who love the feel-good praise music and NEVER even hear any of the old hymns, much less learn to treasure them. How will that generation preserve our musical heritage? She retorted that they would hear the traditional music at holiday services but then admitted that was a pretty thin response.

    I don’t know how this problem will be addressed by our church, but I pray we do not lose the music that made us the “singing church.”

  6. Anne
    November 29, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Lovely story… and just a small note – that the O Antiphons lend their spelling to the name of the hymn – It’s O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I’m not sure what the difference is. Peace and thanks.

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