Thoughts on “O Come, All Ye Faithful”

By | December 25, 2015
O Come, All Ye Faithful

While the text of the Latin Christmas carol “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is almost 2,000 years old having been penned only a few hundred years after the birth of Christ , “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is rather young in the history of sacred music being not even 275 years old. The text was written by John Francis Wade (c. 1711-86) during a time when Latin was the language of academia. Wade was a Catholic layman who fled England during the Jacobean rebellion of 1745 eventually settling in France. Early hymnals offer a variety of melodies for this text, but it is now sung exclusively to the tune ADESTE FIDELES that may have been composed by English composers John Reading (1645-92) or Thomas Arne (1710-78), or possibly even King John IV of Portugal (1604-56), a composer in his own right.

To fully appreciate this carol, we need to look at the word “triumphantes” in the first couple lines of the text: “Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes.” The standard English translation translates this word simply as “triumphant.” However, “triumphantes” has more implications than simply denoting an emotion or a state of being. It is an adjective that comes from the verb “triumpho,” which means “to hold or celebrate a triumph” or, and even more specifically, “to make a triumphal procession.”  In the Roman Empire, this word had militaristic connotations and would no doubt have been used as returning armies celebrated their victories with great parades. A literal translation of the first stanza reads as follows:

Come, all you faithful, in a joyful triumphant procession
come, come to Bethlehem.
See the birth of the King of Angels.

Refrain: Come let us worship, come let us worship, come let us worship the Lord.

This carol is a song of victory intended for a victory parade. With this understanding, we can envision this carol as being sung by a great crowd of the “faithful” as they march toward Bethlehem to see the Christ Child for themselves and welcome Him to earth. However, consider that we are being invited to join a victory procession that involves marching from wherever we are to a dumpy, little town to visit a child, a mere infant, for a victory that, at least at the time of Christ’s appearance, was not going to be fully accomplished for another thirty years or so. Robert Southwell (c. 1561-95) explores these paradoxes more fully in his brilliant poem “New Heaven, New War,” the last four verses of which were set by Benjamin Britten in the movement “This Little Babe” from his Ceremony for Carols (see the post The Paradoxes of This Little Babe).

Altogether, Wade wrote four stanzas for “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” These are the four that are traditionally sung today. A literal translation of the rest of Wade’s stanzas is provided below. It is interesting that the second stanza seems to be taken from the Nicene Creed.

God of God, Light of Light
is born of the young woman’s womb.
True God, begotten, not made. Refrain

Now sing “Io!” choir of angels;
now sing, citizens of heaven:
“Glory to God in the highest!” Refrain

Therefore, to the One who was born on the morning of this day,
to You, Jesus, be glory!
Eternal Father, Word made flesh. Refrain

Four other stanzas have been added since (click here for details). My favorite of these tells us what we will see in Bethlehem.

The eternal Father’s eternal splendor
we shall see hidden under flesh.
God as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. Refrain

For a new setting of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” that attempts to musically portray this triumphant procession to Bethlehem, please contact me.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

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