Both Ancient and New: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – revisited.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

(Scroll down to listen to song from the soon-to-be-released  CD Keening for the Dawn)

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know what the “Great O Antiphons” were –  although I was well acquainted with the song that preserves the tradition and the seven ancient,  prophetic names for the Christ:

O Emmanuel (God With Us)   “Heart of heaven beating in the earth”
O Sapientia (Wisdom)   “Sweetly ordering all things”
O Radix (Root)   “The stock and stem of every living thing”
O Oriens (Daystar)   “Splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness”
O Clavis (Key)   “Opening our darkness to the light of day”
O Adonai  (Great Lord)   “Redeem us with an outstretched arm”
O Rex Gentium  (Desire of Nations)   “A King within our rags of flesh and bone”

Malcolm and Steve

The church has traditionally meditated on these antiphons during  the last seven days of Advent from December 17 – 23. Last fall when I began to discover the breadth of Malcolm Guite’s poetry, I found he had written seven sonnets corresponding to each of the O Antiphons, and in reflecting on them, the tradition came alive for me in a way I wasn’t expecting. What had been (for me) a beautiful but often dirgy Advent hymn, suddenly became ablaze with revelation.

I knew immediately I wanted to record the song, but not as it is traditionaly done –  moreso like the downhill ski-run it had become for me. So I blue-grassed it up a bit. I refashioned several of the stanzas (borrowing language from Malcolm’s sonnets) and left room for Malcolm to recite two of his sonnets in place of two of the sung stanzas.

Fortunately for me, Malcolm was lecturing near Vancouver this past summer, and so I enlisted my friend, producer Roy Salmond, to assemble a simple mobile recording studio;  to meet Malcolm and record his recitations.

To read Malcolm’s sonnets visit  and type “antiphons” in the search box. In the introduction to the final sonnet Malcolm exposes a hidden message revealed in a reverse acrostic. The acrostic only appears when the antiphons are ordered traditionally – an order which I’ve totally ignored in my rendition for reasons only interesting to myself I’m sure.

To listen to the song, click on the song title below…

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

lyric Traditional*  music Veni

O Emmanuel (God With Us)
O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lowly exile here
Until the Son of God appears

O Sapientia (Wisdom)
Oh come clear wisdom, come with all you bring
We see you now disguised as everything
To us the hidden path of prudence show
And teach us in her ways to go

O Radix (Root*)
All of us, sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all
We knew the virtues once of every weed
But, severed from the roots of ritual
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within
Under the ground of being, graft us in

O Oriens (Dayspring)
O come, now dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by your advent here
Disburse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

O Clavis (Key*)
Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key
That each dark clasp, sharp and intimate
Must find a counter-clasp to meet it’s guard
Particular, exact and  intricate
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and overturned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of the latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day
O come again, come quickly set me free
Cut to the quick to fit the master key

O Adonai (Majestic Lord)
O Come, Great Lord of splendour, power and might
Who to your ragged tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times inscribed the sacred law
In fire and cloud, in majesty and awe

O Rex Gentium (King/ Desire of Nations)
O Come, Desire of Nations, come and bind
In one the hearts of broken human kind
Make all our sad divisions cease
And be yourself our King of Peace

* Stanzas 1,2,4,6 & 7 modified by Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite from the Traditional.
Stanzas 2 & 5 by Malcolm Guite: Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press, 2012. Used by permission.

Purchase Keening for the Dawn HERE…

Find Sounding the Seasons HERE…

Read story of Keening for the Dawn and listen to the title track HERE…

Read review of Keening for the Dawn HERE…

Sinai’s Heights
photo: Steve Bell

11 thoughts on “Both Ancient and New: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – revisited.

  1. “every lock must answer to a key…”

    Lovely, thoughtful lyrics/poetry throughout.

    That the modern church has forsaken such deep expressions of our mysterious faith, for dry factual lists of doctrine, has only impoverished us. Thanks for reopening these treasures.

  2. That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate
    Must find a counter-claps to meet it’s guard
    Particular, exact and intimate.

    I like the placement of “intricate” and “intimate” found in the recording of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I was wondering why the printed lyrics are reversed?

    Miss you, Steve.

    Thanks! Fixed it!! 🙂

  3. Just a quick reply to pastor Jim. I changed it! by the time I came to record with Roy I had done the final redraft and the way it is on the recording is also the way it will be printed in the book

  4. I collect Christmas cd’s. From the 2 songs I’ve heard, I know it will be my favorite.

  5. Just home from your concert in Calgary and privileged to sit in the front row… Your music has accompanied us on our own journey deep into the heart of christianity (and surprisingly enough, into the Catholic church). Every time we hear you sing and speak, we are drawn deeper into understanding of who God is. I was thrilled to hear your description of advent and have always wished that the greater Christian church out there could come to love the feasts and seasons that the Catholics have kept all these years. They are such a treasure. God bless you! Thank you for bringing more of the True, Good and Beautiful into the world.

Comments are closed.