Adventures in Advent

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is probably the most popular Advent hymn, and it has been recorded by Whitney Houston, Lorena McKennitt, U2 and Enya. There’s even a punk rock version by a band called Bad Religion.

Each verse is based on an Old Testament prophecy. The lyrics date from the 8th century, when they were sung one verse a day on the seven days before Christmas. It has a haunting melody but is hopeful in its refrain, which was added much later.

Until 1966, nobody knew where the melody came from. That’s when a British woman named Mary Berry solved the mystery. Berry,  a choral conductor and an authority on Gregorian chants, found the melody on a document in the National Library of France, as part of a French requiem mass in the 15th century.

The man who first translated “O Come O Come, Emmanuel” from Latin was an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale. Denied a parish because of his Catholic leanings, he established an orphanage and a girls’ school on the Madeira Islands, off the coast of Africa, where he also ministered to prostitutes. He later was the warden of an almshouse. Neale also wrote the Christmas hymn “Good King Wenceslas” and translated “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”

There are actually three translations of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and most hymnals use different words. The last two verses in modern hymnals (“bid envy, strife and quarrels cease”) were written during World War I by Henry Sloane Coffin, the uncle of William Sloane Coffin, the antiwar chaplain of Yale in the 1960s and ’70s.

Nick at Leverett Church

This is Nick speaking about hymns at Leverett Congregational Church on Sunday. (Photo by Rick Cowan)

Neale was also the translator of  “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” It is the oldest hymn in most hymnals, dating from the 4th century. The melody comes from a chant dating from the 12th or 13th century.

The original words were written by Marcus Aurelius Prudentius, a Spanish lawyer and judge who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries. He gave up his legal career at age 57 to enter a monastery, where he wrote hymns and poetry. Prudentius was one of the most widely read authors during the Middle Ages.

He wrote the original Latin poem in response to a controversy. Christianity was still forming, and there were many alternative ideas about the true faith, which we now call heresies. One that was current in the 4th century argued that Jesus was created by God but was distinct from God and subordinate to God. Prudentius wrote his poem as a refutation of this heresy.

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” was written by Charles Wesley, who with his brother John founded Methodism in England in the mid-18th century. Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,”

I met a Methodist minister recently who told me that Charles Wesley got the tunes for his hymns by going to taverns and jotting down the notes of popular drinking songs. I like this story because it recalls how the early Christians co-opted pagan festivals when they placed Jesus’s birth right after the winter solstice.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. A scholar of Methodism maintains that it’s all a misunderstanding based on the two different meanings of the word “bar” – one for taverns and another for musical notation.

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”  is sung to different tunes in different hymnals, and most of them use only half of the verses that Wesley wrote. It’s risen and fallen in popularity, but since 1990 it’s been part of most hymnals. The first line was chosen for the title of a book of Advent readings.

The hymn has an allusion to Scripture in every line, and has a chant-like quality resulting from its unvarying rhythm. It uses imperative forms of verbs, such as “come,” “release,” “rule” and “raise.” I especially like the repetition of the word “born” in the third verse.

Coming soon to this blog: the unusual history of two Christmas hymns, both written by Massachusetts natives, that are now classics but were once thought to be unsuitable for inclusion in hymnals.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 150 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, living without, life lessons, cooking, gardening and climate change.


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