Much of what we love about Christmas is related to traditions.
The song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a way we Christians have celebrated prophecy and the fulfillment of it year after year—as a matter of tradition, you might say.
Here is the prophecy as stated in Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
These words are fulfilled with the birth of Jesus as described in Matthew 1:18-25.
Think about the Christmas trees you have had. Think about the ornaments you put on the tree. One may be from the first year you celebrated Christmas with your spouse. One may be one that someone in the household made when they were in second grade. One may be from a church, the way many churches give ornaments to their congregants in the Christmas season.
Think about where you usually spend Christmas Eve, where you’re at Christmas morning, where you eat Christmas dinner.
Many of our Christmas carols are older than the hymns and worship songs we sing on a regular basis. Many are more elaborate than the songs we usually sing throughout the year, and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” would qualify. Older is not necessarily better. But, there is a special appeal for this reason: It connects Christians to the millions of believers in generations past.
For centuries around Christmas time each year, year after year, those fellow Christians have sung the carols that mean so much to us, or songs very similar to them.
The first documented version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is in Latin and dates from 1710, which makes it older than most of the hymns we sing, although not all of them.
However, there are indications of people singing or chanting very similar songs in the 1200s and even as far back as the 800s. Those songs or chants from more than a thousand years ago are called the O Antiphons.
Christmas carols are very rich in theology. This first verse of this very song comes from the verse from Isaiah quoted at the start, predicting the coming of Christ and the circumstances.
Each of the other four traditional verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” does the same. As an example, consider the verse that starts “O Come Thou Rod of Jesse, free…” That’s a reference to Isaiah as well, but in this case Isaiah 11:1-2:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Jesse was the father of David, who would become King David. While Jesus is the only begotten son of God the Father, the Bible takes great pains to show Jesus’ lineage back to David on both sides of his family.
Even before the O Antiphons, there is even evidence of similar wording being used in the 400s.
The world looked much different to believers 16 centuries ago. Much of what we call the Middle East was Christian then. Few of the traditions we observe around Christmas would have been observed.
But they celebrated by singing, in some ways similar to the way we do. They pleaded for the arrival of Christ, the savior, God With Us, and honored his birth. Year after year, generation after generation, millions of believers have found ways to do the same. That is a connection for each of us to many others, some closely related and some distantly. That is a tradition.
Interestingly, that spirit of connections is recognized in a more recent addition to the song, which was written in 1916 by Henry Sloan Coffin and is now frequently used as part of the carol.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
All of that leads us to another connection, the most important connection of all. Emmanuel means God With Us, after all. There is a verse in another carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” that describes Christ as “…pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” The part of the trinity we call Jesus came to Earth, became fully human as well as fully divine, walked among us, and sacrificed himself for us.
Celebrate a tradition by singing or listening to your favorite carols this year.