Songs of Christmas…O Come, O Come Emmanuel

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When I first started thinking about this series, I knew “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” would be the first song I would include. After all, it is one of the few “Advent” hymns and I thought I already knew pretty much everything there was to know about this old song. Boy, was I wrong!

I thought the song was rooted in Gregorian chants. It isn’t, though there are similarities. Gregorian chants have their roots in the 9th and 10th centuries. The lyrics of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (in Latin) come from the 8th century. The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf, in his poem “The Christ” uses language that alludes to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Cynewulf wrote “The Christ” between 750-800 (Gant, p. 1). Latin translations into English came in the 19th century.

The tune, as we know it today, didn’t come into use until about the 15th century (Osbeck, Location 216). With obvious language exceptions and the tune being different, people in the 9th century would find the lyrics surprisingly familiar.

The original writer is unknown, probably a monk or priest who had a strong knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments. “…the words painted a rich illustration of the many biblical prophecies of Christ’s birth” (Collins, Location 1347). Once the completed hymn became available it became popular for one week a year in churches and monasteries across Europe. The other 51 weeks of the year the hymn was largely ignored. During that one week during daily mass leading up to Christmas, a different verse would be sung.

Though not credited with the translation of the song in the United Methodist Hymnal (Laurence Hill Stookey and William Sloan Coffin), most of the credit for the worldwide popularity goes to John Mason Neale, a 19th century Anglican priest.

Neale was received his education at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a brilliant man who would speak and write in more than 20 languages. He might have become someone great in perhaps another time or place but he scared the powers who oversaw the Church of England during that era. Instead, they were afraid of him and instead of assigning him to a London Church, he was sent to the Madeira Islands off of the northwestern coast of Africa. Most of us would never have been heard from again but Neale refused to give up on God’s call for his life. Despite his meager salary, he established the Sisterhood of St. Margaret and from that order he began an orphanage, a school for girls, a house of refuge for prostitutes. And, that was only the beginning.

Neale also read everything he could get his hands on regarding Scripture and Scripture-based writing. It was during these studies he encountered the Latin chant, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Realizing the importance of the chant he translated it into English. He is still often credited with the translation, even in versions where there is great certainty that he did not write (Collins, Location 1367).

I wanted to include Neale’s story because his is an example of remaining faithful to the call of God. When he became exiled to the opposite side of the world, it might have been easy to give up. It might have been easy to, at best, go through the motions. Neale did not give up and worked tirelessly to be faithful to God’s call on his life. I know I need that reminder from time to time. I feel certain I am not alone. God calls all of us to something. Are we faithful to God’s call?

Had Neale refused the assignment, had he just gone through the motions, what he accomplished might never have happened. And, one of the treasured songs of Christmas might never be heard outside a lonely monastery.

So, for me, perhaps now when I hear, or when I sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the words and haunting melody might remind me of John Mason Neale and his determination to live out God’s call. Perhaps that reminder will also help me to both remember and be faithful to God’s call too.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Tomorrow: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources:
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

Author:

Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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