One of the most familiar and beloved Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” has its roots in Christian monastic life of the 8th and 9th centuries. In the seven days before Christmas Eve, a series of special antiphons — short phrases surrounding a liturgical psalm or canticle — would be sung. During that week, the antiphons were meant to point toward the Feast of the Incarnation, and to heighten anticipation of the celebration through references drawn from both Old and New Testaments.
Because their introductory phrases refer to various titles given to the coming Messiah, those last antiphons of Advent became known as the ‘O Antiphons.’
O Sapentia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Genitium (O King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (God With Us)
The last antiphon, ‘O Emmanuel,’ traditionally was sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve. Perhaps as early as the 12th century, it was given a Latin metrical form and transformed into a hymn. When John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the architect of the Oxford Movement and a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, discovered it in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,” he included it in his collection of Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851) and it soon made its way into congregational settings.
Over the years, the popularity of the hymn never has waned. Stirring in a cathedral worship setting, it can be equally appealing when performed instrumentally. Now and then, an artist puts a personal stamp on the hymn in a way that is both faithful to the original and utterly new. Rearranging lyrics and simplifying their presentation, Enya has made a centuries old antiphon something wholly unexpected: both magical and memorable.