Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
The carol is unique among Christmas songs. It obviously stands apart from the shallow Christmas songs like “All I Want for Christmas Is You” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” However, where it really stands apart is among the carols. While the other carols are statements of proclamation—“Joy to the World, the Lord has come” or “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king”—the “O Come Emmanual” is a prayer of desperation.
This carol is a haunting plea, sung by a world lost in darkness. It is a cry for rescue by the almighty God. It is arguably the most representative song of the Advent season.
The carol is possibly one of the oldest, dating back to as early as the eighth or ninth century. It contained seven verses called the “O Antiphons” also known as the “Great O’s.”
You can clearly see why:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light
O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.
The carol was first chanted in monasteries, in Latin, the seven days before Christmas, the darkest days of the year. The monks would chant only first verse at the start of the one-week countdown. With each new day, another verse would be added—the second antiphon on the second day, the third on the third, and so on.
On Christmas Eve, all seven antiphons would be chanted. In and of itself, the lyrics resonate in a world gone mad. We plead for intervention from the only one who could save the world.
However, there is another message in this song.
A message from God to humanity.
It’s message spoken without us even knowing it.
As previously mentioned, the song is made up of seven “O Antiphons”, each a title given to Jesus: O Emmanuel; O Wisdom from on High; O great Lord of might; O Branch of Jesse’s Stem; O Key of David; O Bright and Morning Star; and finally O King of Nations
The chant was originally written and sung in Latin. Since it was sung as a countdown to Christmas, it is sung in reverse order from how it is sung now. The “O Antiphons” are listed thusly: O Emmanel; O Rex Gentium; O Oriens; O Clavis David; O Radix Jesse; O Adonai; and finally, O Sapientia.
The first letter of each of these Antiphons form an acronym: ERO CRAS.
Having chanted through the week prior to Christmas, adding a verse each week, when the song reaches Christmas Eve, the acronym forms a message of hope and anticipation: ERO CRAS.
ERO CRAS is Latin meaning “Tomorrow I come.”
Hidden in a chant crying out for divine salvation from the darkness is simultaneously issuing a proclamation: “Tomorrow I Come.”
It’s December 24, as I write this. Prior to this day, the sun appeared to sink lower and lower on the horizon as though the sun going away. Now daylight grows longer by roughly a minute. Light is coming in to the world.
We suffer from depression, loneliness, nihilism, hopelessness, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and suicide now more than ever. We put on a brave, stoic face, but it is hard to hide it.
2023 was a hard year. Given an upcoming election, 2024 likely isn’t going to be much different. So we cry out for a Savior: “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” As the days countdown to December 25, they get more and more desperate.
But in the midst of our suffering, God is proclaiming: “Tomorrow I come.”
Tomorrow is a reminder that salvation isn’t coming, it is here.
The Son of God will take human form and suffer with us.
This Messiah will live as a human.
Roughly tree decades later, this Messiah will die a most brutal death, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them. For they don’t know what they are doing.”
For now, we celebrate. In our suffering, in our darkness, in our pleas, we get the answer to it all.
Tomorrow he comes.