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.