For the next four Sundays we will sing a verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (ELW #257 VENI, EMMANUEL) as we light a candle on our advent wreath. This hymn falls into the category of ‘story song’ because rather than focusing on a particular dogmatic theme it tells the story of all of the ways in which Jesus will save us (“The First Noel” is a really clear example of a story song). While commonly known by its Latin title the hymn is a metrical paraphrase of the O Antiphons, a series of plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days of Christmas. The words and music developed separately. The Latin text was first documented in Germany in 1710 in the seventh edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, which was published in Cologne. That hymnal was a major force in the history of German church music: first assembled by Jesuit hymnographer Johannes Herringsdorf in 1610 and receiving numerous revised editions through 1868, it achieved enormous impact due to its use in Jesuit schools.
The tune that we know today originates from France in the 15th century. The combination of text and tune proved to be almost magical and makes for an interesting discussion of what makes a piece of music (or art) timeless. The hymn text was embraced out of a romantic interest in poetry and medieval exoticism as well as a concern to match hymns to liturgical seasons and functions rooted in the Oxford Movement in the Church of England-a movement of high church Anglicans which argued for the reinstatement of lost Christian traditions of faith and their inclusion into Anglican liturgy and theology. While the tune that we sing is the predominant choice, some Lutheran Churches in the United States use the tune ST. PETERSBURG by Dmitry Bortniansky for "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.
In his 1928 presidential campaign Herbert Hoover famously promised a “chicken in ever pot”. While I can’t promise chicken this new church year I’d like to be able to get a “hymnal in every home”. Our hymnal is full of rich history and like the Bible it is a “core rather than a comprehensive resource…reflecting a body of prayer and song that our churches consider worthy to hold in common.” This year we will dig deeper into this rich book and if you do not have a hymnal please let me know.