For more than 1200 years, monasteries and convents have chanted a series of verses during the final week of Advent known as the Great O Antiphons. Each verse names Christ by a different title, one of them being Emmanuel—”God With Us.”
Sometime around 1100, an unknown author took these antiphons and turned them into a metrical Latin poem, and shortly after 1700 an unknown editor printed this metrical version as part of a larger collection.
Some 150 years later the poem came to the attention of Anglican priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale, and his translation appeared in Medieval Hymns and Sequences in 1851, along with this notation: “This Advent hymn is little more than a versification of some of the Christmas antiphons commonly called the O’s.”
Ten years later Neale’s translation was included in the Church of England’s official hymnal, and spread from there throughout the Christian world. Various other translators tinkered with the text as time went by; the version in common use today combines Neale’s work with that of Presbyterian preacher and social activist Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1954).
Although nobody knows how Neale came into contact with the melody, its origin was eventually traced to a 15th-century processional funeral hymn for French Franciscan nuns, found in a manuscript in the National Library of Paris.
Solidly biblical, and hauntingly beautiful, with the weight of centuries behind it, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is an example of Advent hymnody at its best, thanks to the genius of John Mason Neale.