O Emmanuel (December 23)

Today we come to the end of the O Antiphons – perhaps the one that most people know, thanks to the Advent hymn inspired by it: “O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God!”

The name ‘Emmanuel’ – meaning ‘with us is God’ – comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah. After Ahaz refuses the invitation of the Lord to ask for a sign to reassure him that God will deliver on His promise, the Isaiah makes this proclamation:

Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.

Isaiah 7:13-14

Ahaz needed reassurance that he and his people would not be torn apart by their enemies. The Lord exhorted him – and through him, his people – to stand firm, to trust in Him. But He spoke not only to Ahaz, but to all mankind. Isn’t it the case that we often need reassurance that we will not be torn apart by the Enemy, from attacks without and within? Who of us hasn’t trembled at the weight of our own sin and the pressure of temptation!

The message given through the prophet Isaiah speak more profoundly in light of this spiritual battle: “Thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand, it shall not be!” God will not permit His beloved children to stand alone.

What is required of us is neither power nor strength, but instead trust. Some two thousand years ago, our heavenly Father sent His Word to us, incarnate in the person of Christ. By the Father’s will, Jesus sent us His Holy Spirit – and assures us that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there with them. May we confidently call on the Lord, knowing that He has already come, is with us, and will bring us through our present struggles to eternal joy & peace.

And if you’re looking for good version of that eponymous hymn, here is one of my favorite popular renditions of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’:

O Rex Gentium (December 22)

Today is the penultimate day of the O Antiphons, and what a grand one it is: “O King of all nations and keystone of the Church: come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!”

There is a quote about when a man ceases to worship God, he will end up worshipping anything. Though attributed to G.K. Chesterton, it seems this quote is actually an amalgamation of different speeches of Chesterton’s fictional Father Brown. However it might have originated, there’s something to it: we know our hearts are missing something – and we seek to fill that gap with something greater than ourselves.

The Church warns us of seven deadly sins: “They are called ‘capital’ because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia.” (CCC 1866) If they take root in our lives, these sins become dominant in us – so much so that they take over (ie, ‘he’s ruled by his pride’). And what cruel rulers they prove to be, when we subject ourselves to them!

One of my favorite quotes from The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe – the first book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – speaks about the kind of kingship that is uniquely the Lord’s, modeled in the character of Aslan:

“Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why, don’t you know? He’s the King.”

[. . . .]

You’ll understand when you see him.”
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is–is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

Strange though it may sound, choosing deadly sins as our king often seems safer than inviting Christ to be our king. With sin, there is the illusion of control, of having power over others, the world, and ourselves. With Christ, the illusion of control is stripped away and our powerlessness laid bare. Of course this would make us nervous! But as we are reminded by the character of Mr. Beaver, our king is good. May we ask the Lord to help us trust Him, that we might recognize His kingship – and so receive the good things He is preparing for us.

O Oriens (December 21)

Throughout C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, there is the constant anticipation of the coming dawn, the morning light that will shine on a people who have been looking for illumination all their lives. Throughout the story, we are introduced to characters whose search have brought them to the edge of heaven – theirs to enter if only they’ll turn away from the darkness of sins they so treasure, allowing themselves to be brought to the eternal light, and more importantly, the One who is the source of that light.

I can’t say enough to recommend this brief story (less than 150 pages!) – it is a lovely reflection on the divide between heaven & hell. In the end, we all must choose between being swallowed up in the darkness of their sins or set free to in the light of the new day of the Lord. Perhaps C.S. Lewis was inspired by the Canticle of Zechariah, where the husband of Elizabeth – his lips finally freed at the birth of his son John the Baptist – praises the tender mercy of God and announces the dawn from on high coming to shine on us who live in darkness and the shadow of death.

In today’s antiphon, the Church invites us to turn from the darkness of the world to the light of Christ, the fifth of the O Antiphons: “Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.” May we invite the Lord to illuminate our hearts and minds such that we recognize where we need Him most, asking Him to drive away all that keeps us from eagerly turning towards the Risen Son.

O Clavis David (December 20)

Today’s fourth of the O Antiphons speaks of the Lord as the key: “O Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness!”

This language comes from Isaiah 22:22, alluding to the authority of the one chosen by God, according to the house of David. Keys signify authority – only those who have a right to what a key unlocks are permitted to carry them. The one with the keys can bar others from entering, or swing wide the doors to allow them in.

In Christian tradition, too, keys hold a rich symbolism. The Lord Himself used the language of keys when, in response to Peter’s confession of faith, He entrusts ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ to Peter and the Apostles: whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Thus was established the sacrament of confession, in which we receive and celebrate the mercy of God.

Though the Lord has authority to enter through any doors, He respects the authority we have over our own hearts; He will not enter uninvited. Similarly, He will not force us to pass through the entrance of heaven which He has swung open on our behalf. Instead, He gently knocks at the doors of our hearts, ready to invite & welcome us into His. May we take the opportunity to respond, allowing the Lord in – especially through the celebration of the sacrament of confession – so that with Him, we might be made worthy to enter the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom.

O Radix Jesse (December 19)

Every year, the Church throws a curveball at Her clerics – having them read the genealogy of Jesus Christ at Mass. The first is for in December 17 and the second at the vigil of the Nativity of the Lord. The Church clearly intends for Her members to sit with the heritage of our Saviour. We have not one, not two, but three invitations to reflection in this the third of the O Antiphons: “O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!”

This turn of phrase – ‘root of Jesse’ – comes from the prophet Isaiah. The entirety of chapter 11 of the book of the prophet Isaiah details the promise of a new king in the line of King David, bringing with Him a new era of prosperity and peace for God’s people – and it starts with the imagery of today’s antiphon: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”

The commentary in the New American Bible observes that the language of ‘shoot’ and ‘stump’ is meant to highlight the failings, corruption even, of the monarchs of old. Despite King David being the greatest of the priests of Israel, he was weak and corrupt – to the point of taking another man’s wife and killing her husband to hide his transgressions. The kings that followed David and his son, Solomon, were progressively worse. Eventually, the entire kingdom of Israel fractured into countless pieces because of the brokenness of their kings.

In reflecting on the antiphon immediately prior to this one, ‘O Adonai’, we saw how God’s people demanded a replacement for the Lord – a request He granted, albeit with significant warnings. But He does not abandon His people, despite their rejection of Him. Not only that, but He promises to remedy their mistake long before the full repercussions have set in!

In reflecting on today’s antiphon, this promise is re-presented to us. May we open ourselves to Him anew, inviting God to restore us to Himself, rooting ourselves once again in Him.

O Adonai (December 18)

When it comes to discussing leadership, the request of the people of Israel to Samuel comes to mind: “Therefore all the elders of Israel assembled and went to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example, appoint a king over us, like all the nations, to rule us” (Samuel 8:5).

Samuel, as you might imagine, was decidedly not amused – not only were the elders making a crazy demand, they threw in a little personal insult to boot! But as he prays to the Lord, God points out that it is not Samuel they are rejecting, but Him. And so the Lord – even as He grants their request – delivers this warning through His prophet Samuel:

He told them: “The governance of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot.

He will appoint from among them his commanders of thousands and of hundreds. He will make them do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war and chariotry.

He will use your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers.

He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his servants.

He will tithe your crops and grape harvests to give to his officials and his servants.

He will take your male and female slaves, as well as your best oxen and donkeys, and use them to do his work.

He will also tithe your flocks. As for you, you will become his slaves.

On that day you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you on that day.”

Samuel 8:11

The next time you have to pay your taxes, serve in mandatory civil work, see your family & friends sent into battles chosen (or even started) by rulers – remember this moment in the history of God’s people. I certainly do!

The thing is, I’m just as guilty as they in rejecting God as my king. Despite the audacity of their request, at least the Israelites were open about it. How often do we do the same, but in ways that are less open & honest – at least to ourselves?

And so we come to the second of our O Antiphons, offered this evening at Vespers: “O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!” Perhaps now more than ever, we know that we need the One who can lead us with perfect goodness (dare I say, we need a hero!). May we invite the Lord to take His place as our leader & guide.

O Sapientia – the first of the O Antiphons (December 17)

Today we begin the octave before Christmas, during which we have one of O Antiphons each day. These antiphons are part of Vespers – Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. If you recognize these, it is probably because they form the basis for the Advent hymn ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ – though that particular antiphon is the last antiphon, despite being the first verse of the hymn! It seems popular practice sometimes trumps exact liturgical correctness ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But nevermind all that, because today’s antiphon is O Sapientia or O Wisdom. The full text is “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!

When discussing evangelization, one of the hurdles folks sometimes face is the sense that they don’t know enough to convey the truths of the faith accurately. In those conversations, it is often a revelation to realize that wisdom has little to do with knowledge of doctrine & dogma and more to do with relationship with the Lord. Provided that we spend time with Him regularly, invite Him into our lives, pay attention to His promptings & presence, we will be the best of evangelists – simply by virtue of our friendship with God.

Wisdom is not the simple regurgitation of facts about Christ and His Church, but being able to discern & live with the mind of Christ! As we draw near to the conclusion of Advent, may we open ourselves to receive God’s loving guidance.

(My friend Thom Ryng, over at his blog The World is Quiet Here, has kicked off his annual reflections on the O Antiphons – I highly recommend it, and his blog in general!)