Advent hymns unpacked, Words Matter — Jane Clements, UK

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And with your people always dwell
Who mourn in mortal exile here
Until the Lord of Life appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come again and with us ever dwell

–lyrics by Philip Cunningham

‘Why does all this matter? It matters because what we sing is as important as what we pray and, as John Pritchard put it, this is where many of us learn our theology. …old anti-Judaic tropes … need to be eradicated from our worship.’

This article, ‘That Mourns in Lonely Exile here – A reflection on Jewish-Christian Relations and Advent Hymn’ written by Dr Jane Clements, with Dr Clare Amos and Revd Ray Gaston, was originally posted on the Churches Together in Britain & Ireland website.

In this season of Advent we experience one of those subtle changes whereby our traditional hymnody shifts into a minor key. The celebratory themes of the preceding ‘Kingdom’ period give way to more sombre reflections on penitence and spiritual preparation. …

Music is part of our vehicle of worship and, as the former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard writes, ‘hymns and songs have taught and inspired millions of Christians over the centuries….They carry our memories and some of our most exalted moments. And if the truth be known, they carry most of our theology too – much of what we believe has come from our hymns.’ (Going to Church: A User’s Guide, 2009, p69)

It is all the more disappointing, therefore, to discover that some of what is still sung today perpetuates old, anti-Judaic stereotypes, using words intended to confirm a theology which we, as a Church, have since tried hard to eradicate. And the two worst offenders in this context are Advent hymns.

The document published by the Church of England last year on our relationship with Jews and Judaism, God’s Unfailing Word, highlighted the hymn ‘Lo, He comes with clouds descending’. The problematic words of the second verse reinforce the old charge of deicide against the Jews who, ‘deeply wailing’ will finally acknowledge their Messiah. Fortunately, in many hymn books, these words have been changed to reflect the collective responsibility of us all. Unfortunately, that other Advent favourite, ‘O come O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel’ is less easy to address.

When one examines the history of this particular hymn, one encounters other versions, used in other languages and in other churches. The hymn is based on the ‘O Antiphons’, seven responses used in the last days of Advent and something of a medieval Advent calendar. Possibly dating back to the eighth century, each antiphon uses a different title of Christ: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse and so on. Set out in order, the first letters form a Latin acrostic – ‘ero cras’, meaning ‘tomorrow I come’. The last of these antiphons, on 23rd December, is the title ‘Emmanuel’, God with us. The hymn we sing in English today is a translation of a Latin metrical version. Not only does this version miss much of the charm of the original antiphons, but in its reordering and introduction of ‘Israel’, it depicts Jews as mired in sin and exiled from God’s presence until Christ’s return, old anti-Judaic tropes which need to be eradicated from our worship.

The most literal and problematic English translation of this Latin metrical version was that made by T.A.Lacey:

O come, O come Emmanuel,
redeem thy captive Israel,
that into exile drear is gone,
far from the face of God’s dear son.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

More familiar today is the translation made by J.M.Neale:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Why does all this matter? It matters because what we sing is as important as what we pray and, as John Pritchard put it, this is where many of us learn our theology. In Advent we acknowledge the reality that full redemption will only be completed with Jesus’ return. The 1988 Lambeth Conference document (Jews, Christians and Muslims, The Way of Dialogue) acknowledged that we have a mission in common: the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. This challenges us to address an unbiblical and overly spiritual interpretation of the messianic hope. As F W Marquardt has pointed out: ‘we will not have Christian Anti- Judaism behind us until we are theologically able to do something positive with the Jewish No to Jesus’ (Theological Audacities 2010 p3).

The version suggested by the Roman Catholic scholar, Philip Cunningham, reflects this theological understanding:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And with your people always dwell
Who mourn in mortal exile here
Until the Lord of Life appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come again and with us ever dwell

The churches in Germany introduced alternative words after the Second World War, acutely aware of how dangerous misleading liturgy and hymnody could become. A simple alteration of a few words does not detract from the beauty of the music which, after all, is perhaps the main reason for its longevity as an Advent staple. Not only should we be concerned to expurge all anti-Judaic words from our worship, but we should celebrate, especially in these times, that we are, at our roots, covenant people of God waiting in hope for the fulfilment of God’s work.’