My wife, Gail, and I are a living example that opposites attract: organized/disorganized, neat/messy, plan ahead/spontaneous, practical/idealistic (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which!). Of course, we both love music, but one of the other things we discovered about each other early in our relationship was that we are both very picky about correct spelling and grammar. As you might imagine, the words there/their/they’re, of/have, and its/it’s are a never ending source of consternation (and don’t even get me started on the serial comma…).
That brings me to worship this Sunday (I’ll bet you were wondering where this was going). The Advent Service of Lessons and Carols is centered around the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I love this hymn, but it stirs up my captious tendencies. In the Lutheran hymnal that was in use when I was growing up, the title of the hymn was Oh, Come, oh, Come, Emmanuel. Surely this must hold the record for “most commas in a hymn title,” but what bothers me about the title is the different spellings in different hymnals (“Oh, Come” vs. “O Come”). Many people think that “O” is just an alternate spelling for “oh,” but there is a distinction! “Oh” is an exclamation that expresses surprise, disappointment, anger, excitement, or agreement (Oh, no!) or to get someone’s attention (“Oh, wait!”). “O” is used as a formal way to address someone or something (O Captain! My Captain). So does it really matter? Consider the different meanings of the following:
“O Lord, hear my prayer.”
“Oh, Lord! I locked myself out of my car again!”
Still wondering what my point is? Are you impatiently thinking, “Oh, boy, get to the point, O Jeffrey!” OK, let me bring it home. The aforementioned hymn is based on texts known as the “O antiphons.” Each antiphon (and each stanza of the hymn) begins with “O” followed by a different title for the coming Christ (e.g. O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O Dayspring—note the proper use of “O”) and a plea to come and do something (e.g. teach us the way of truth). The final antiphon is O Emmanuel, from which we get the hymn title. So if we want to preserve the “O” and “come” connections to the antiphon, and be grammatically correct, it might be better to change the title to “Come, Come, O Emmanuel.” Or if we want to get the other “oh” in there, then “Oh, Come, come O Emmanuel.” Unfortunately, that sounds a little awkward and doesn’t fit metrically with the tune…
Regrettably, the editors of our current hymnal, Glory to God, have chosen to eliminate the distinction between “O” and “oh.” In order to “simplify,” they use “O” exclusively, even when it should be “oh.” (Fun challenge for the week: look at the title index in the back of the hymnal and see if you can figure out which titles should be “oh” and which should be “O.” Oh, doesn’t that sound exciting?) Following this practice would yield song titles such as “O Where, O Where Has My Little Dog Gone” or “O, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” which just doesn’t seem right (no offense to doggies or Oklahoma). “O” has a sense of importance and dignity associated with it. You can almost always leave off the “O” and still have the same meaning (Lord, hear my prayer.), but adding “O” shows a respect and reverence for what follows (O Lord, hear my prayer.).
On Sunday you will hear the antiphons read and respond by singing the associated hymn stanzas. Each time you see, hear, say, or sing “O,” pay attention to what follows. Let the “O” give special honor to Jesus through the many names by which he is called.
Scripture reading for Sunday, December 11, 2016: Luke 1:46-55