I couldn’t go to church with the Baron this morning; I seldom can. So instead I listened to many versions of my favorite Advent hymn.
I also looked up the background again for this ancient plain chant, whose words (from the O Antiphons) probably date to the 9th century – or so it said in the choral hymnbook of my childhood, which also attributed authorship of the plain chant to Thomas Aquinas, and the words to a Syriac church lost in the mists of time. Little did I know – or did my teachers know – the repeated attempts to eradicate that most ancient of Christian communities, probably formed (alongside similar Jewish communities) in the diaspora following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The pre-history of the text stretches back to the origins of the O Antiphons themselves, which were in existence by, at the latest, the eighth century. However, to speak meaningfully of the text of the hymn per se, they would need to be paraphrased in strophic, metrical form. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that efforts along those lines could have been made quite early; we know, for instance, that they were paraphrased extensively by the English poet Cynewulf in a poem written before the year 800. However, despite popular imagination of an early origin for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the hymn’s history is first substantiated only much later.
No thank you. Like most of us, I prefer my childhood’s faith and imagination: all those afternoons of practice in the choir loft as our young voices echoed from the vaulted ceilings never bored me…the fact that I was repeating sounds reverberating down thousands of years of faith never failed to ground me more solidly within the context of my faith.
This is the final week of Advent, a month of Sundays repeating endlessly in The Liturgical Year. In the coming days, the final hectic time for everyone who ‘does’ Christmas, I may post other versions of this hymn. It encapsulates so perfectly the anticipation, the adumbration, of a fast-approaching event that has repeated year after year for the whole of my conscious life. I love the culmination of Advent into the Octave of Christmas, and the Nativity narratives (which appear in only two of the Christian gospels). But these are only sideshows to the Reality. Still, what sideshows they are! Choirs of angels singing to shepherds on the hillsides, Wise men showing up with gifts foretelling suffering, followed by a hasty flight into Egypt…all that is still to come. At the moment, Joseph and Mary are on the dusty road to Bethlehem, obedient to the Roman call for a census…