Christmas is almost here! Like a child who can’t wait for the sun to rise and shine light on her Christmas presents, so my soul and your soul together await the dawn of our salvation – we want Christmas to fill our hearts.
I read an interesting article in the recent edition of Cistercian Studies Quarterly about the O Antiphons. In case you don’t know about them, here is the history on the USCCB web site: “The Roman Church has been singing the ‘O’ Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative ‘Come!’ embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.”
Actually you already know these antiphons if O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is part of your singing repertoire of Advent hymns.
Each night for the octave (8 days) before Christmas, we ask Christ to come and call him by a different name. This Saturday evening, I will begin praying each very intentionally. Each antiphon refers to a different prophesy of the prophet Isaiah, and the reference brings an important figure of the Old Testament to mind.
I imagine a great procession on the way to the crib at Bethlehem. There is Isaiah calling for wisdom in everyday life and asking Someone to stretch out His arms to save. Then comes Moses, asking for Adonai (sacred Lord) to be present as at the burning bush. Following Moses is David, from whose lineage comes our Savior. The house of David is like a root in the ground and the child, the flower, now hidden but soon visible – our Savior Jesus. The next day, David comes again, this time carrying a key, to unlock the mysteries of Jesus’ presence in my life this day. Then comes the prophet Hosea, who in Hosea 6:3 speaks of the coming Savior “…as certain as dawn is his coming.”
Then, in the title, the king of nations and the keystone, we find titles that point to the desires of our heart. St. Augustine famously states at the beginning of his Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5): “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This leads to the final O Antiphon: Emmanuel, God who is with us. Unlike all other religions in which the human sets out in search of God, in the person of Jesus, the opposite happens: it is God Who comes in search – to dwell within us, to pitch His tent, to be Emmanuel. Thus, the Gospel for the Mass of Christmas during the day is not His familiar birth in the Manger scene at Bethlehem but rather the deeply theological first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John: “In the beginning was the Word …and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”(Jn 1:1-14)
While not an O Antiphon, on the day before Christmas we add to the procession, our Blessed Mother Mary, “O Mary, in your son’s birth, all the promises of God are fulfilled.”
What a procession! What anticipation! It even beats that child’s delight who can’t wait for the sun to rise on her Christmas presents under the tree. The O Antiphons provide us with seven beautiful ways to pray each day as Christmas approaches. Here they are for your reflection:
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!