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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Every traveler has had the experience while still far from home on a cold night. Along the road, we pass a home where light streams forth. A party must be going on, for cars surround the house and people fill it. We feel a certain pang in passing, because we long especially at that time for warmth, friendship, festivity. We look forward with heightened anticipation toward our own destinations, tables and families at the end of the journey.
The "O Antiphons" are ancient, liturgical prayers for the last days of the Advent season, December 17-24. Drawn from Scripture, they evoke deep yearnings for a home of eternal peace, a person we can barely imagine. Ask most people what they long for at this season of the year and they are quick to reply, "More time. More money. Great gifts for self and others. Feasting, beauty, rest." All are good goals, but somewhat shallow. Most folks could easily survive Christmas with one less gift, one less glass of eggnog. The quick answer fails to tap the deeper longings, to name a happiness beyond trinkets, to be loved in a way for which we ache at a level beyond words. The "O Antiphons" call from this level, filled with a human longing that transcends countries and centuries. In these ancient prayers lie seeds that might flower in new ways, adapted to contemporary realities.
We rejoice in he-who-is-to-come not only because of his greatness, but because he makes us great, not only because he is the light of the world, but because he tells us, "You are the light of the world." Surrounded by anxieties, we shout with confidence that Christ is King—now and always, here and everywhere, defying the doomsayers.
Like any other prayers, these "O" calls reaching to the divine can be placed in new contexts, chanted not only in monastic choirs, sung not only in the popular hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," but also in our hearts.
O Wisdom, guide our decisions on our way to you.
We are keenly aware how much we need wisdom. Not only do we make immediate choices about families and jobs, we face life-shaping decisions about where to work and live, even wrestle with crucial end-of-life dilemmas. We agonize over how to take appropriate responsibility in our relationships.
On a larger scale, we wonder how to preserve the planet and the best of human culture for the grandchildren to be born in the coming century. The delicate balancing acts of other seasons become intensified during Advent and Christmas, when the demands on time, energy and finances increase. Knowing what to give immediate and distant family, friends, the needy, the church and the job becomes harder when resources seem limited.
Because we know such great need at a natural level, a plea for supernatural Wisdom should rise with heartfelt poignance. Summoning more than mere human acuity, the antiphon calls forth a personification of God. In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom/ Sophia appears as tree of life (3:18) and hostess of bounty (9:1-6). She plays beside God during creation; God delights in her (8:22-31). In the Book of Sirach, she comes forth from God's mouth, covers the earth like mist and pitches her tent among the people (24:3, 8). In the Book of Solomon, she is mother of all good things and source of renewal.
Invoking Wisdom lifts us above a plea for holiday sanity or mere survival.
O Lord, fulfill our deepest longings. The name makes some people uncomfortable. We squirm at negative associations built up over time: "lord of the manor," "lording it over others." The image may reinforce dominance: lord over servant, male over female, mind over body, adult over child, the whole depressing litany of dualisms from which we wish to free human history.
Theologian Robert Barron explains how polarities are reconciled in the Christmas story. On the one hand, Luke's account contains reference to the sovereignty of Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world. The census he decrees is part of the divine plan; even the greatest powers on earth follow God's designs. The angels who announce the glad tidings are so awesome that they inspire respect and command obedience.
"But," Barron writes, "here is the poetic tension of the account: These clear references to the otherness and strangeness of God are coupled with the most remarkable descriptions of God's intimacy with us." God comes as a helpless infant, laid in a manger where animals eat. In the Epiphany story, the God who rules the planets and sends the guiding star appears to the Magi as "a baby too powerless to speak."
Like Magi, we worship this God both intimate and transcendent, both above and within history. We bow before the paradox. The antiphon expresses our human need for a tabernacle before which to genuflect. Without a sense of the sacred, we run the risk of swinging censers through the shopping malls, or kneeling before the altar of the bargain book table. The antiphon reminds us that, finally, Christmas is not about us.
O Flower of Jesse's Stem
O Flower of Jesse's Stem, h
elp us to grow hope.
Those who are deficient in the Green Thumb Department know the guilt of killing a plant. Despite our best efforts, it withers and croaks, no matter how much water, sun or fertilizer we give it. But we also know the joy when the plant we thought doomed sends forth a new shoot.
At first it may seem like an illusion, but day by day, that speck of jade grows bigger. We haven't killed it after all! We become protective of the little shoot, vowing that next time the water and fertilizer will be more carefully calibrated. We'll save this brave volunteer!
The plant is metaphor for all the relationships we thought were dead, that suddenly surprise with a surge of life. The friend from college who phones after 20 years of silence; the reconciliation with a spouse or friend after a bitter argument; the letter that forgives us for being an idiot; the way people continue to like us even after we have insulted them: all these must be small shoots on the dead brown stump of Jesse.
The antiphon reminds us that appearance and reality are often two different things; that death does not have the final say; that God's life has triumphed brilliantly and forever.
O Key of David
O Key of David, o
pen the doors that confine us.
Those who have lost keys are legion; even in the days of coded security panels, we still wail with frustration when the car key or house key goes astray. How much time has been wasted in the futile search for keys, how many hours poured into rearranging schedules when they go missing?
Knowing how crucial the key can be helps us appreciate how, of all the antiphons, this one is most clearly realized in Jesus. For many people, he was key to liberation, but one example will suffice: a story told in Luke 13:10-17. To a woman who had been bent double for 18 years, Jesus called, "You are free of your infirmity!" As her spine straightened, she praised God. And those who were listening carefully might have heard a key clink in a rusty lock.
She is not unique. Over and over, Jesus calls people to freedom and friendship. He is key to a new order, so dramatically different and egalitarian we have not even begun to realize it, 2,000 years later. The freedom suggested by jubilee, its loosening of harsh restraints is merely a hint of the door Jesus opens.|
O Radiant Dawn
O Radiant Dawn, b
urst through our darkness.
This call sounds especially appropriate as a new age dawns, because it carries all our hopes for the future. Yet we cannot appreciate the dawn without considering the night that precedes it. We never know how long a night can drag until we have spent one in the hospital emergency room, or even survived a garden-variety sleepless night. Saved from murky fear and lonely darkness, we greet dawn with renewed appreciation. We welcome joyfully the first pale streaks in the sky, the first sounds of other people stirring.
The blushing bands across the sky can frame inviting potential. To a world starved for beauty, the dawn brings fragile, gossamer patches of pink. We are also grateful for dawn in a larger sense: a new job or project, the excitement of a new book, restaurant or film. Renewed health can be a dawning, as can a second chance. Yet all these pale beside the potential opened by a new millennium.
What might we create in the years ahead that could correspond to the glory of the cathedrals, the theology of Aquinas, the art of da Vinci, the sculpture of Michelangelo? After the fear and terror of 1000 passed, the relief unleashed the new energy of the fresh start, what philosophers called the "building of the West," a powerful undertaking. Could a similar phenomenon occur in these first decades of the third millenium?
All our anticipation is gathered up in this antiphon that prays for a rescue from darkness. What does it mean that God should come to us named as dawn? Perhaps it suggests that God understands our need for a steady reassurance.
O King of all Nations
O King of all Nations, h
elp us to create a new world of peace.
While we may resist the military overtones of kingship, we respond to one who can span the diversity of all nations. At this critical juncture in human history, our war-weary world longs for a source of unity who can turn differences into gifts. Even within our homes, we seek peace from squabbles, resolution of divisions, an end to jealousies.
We who tire of royalty's trappings—the power, riches, scandals and adulation—must avoid the pitfall of Pilate questioning Jesus about his kingship. The Roman governor tried to force the accused man into the political categories of his time. But Jesus resisted any facile labels, transcended any earthly notions of royalty.
His self-understanding utterly reverses our narrow notions of rulers. He will be ransom, servant, sufferer. He seeks to serve, not to dominate, and to draw people, not to conquer them. All the world's most vulnerable can identify with him.
Some may not like the image of king, but kingship evokes deep-felt longing. The antiphon points to a world better than any government we have known up till now, an order that recognizes no difference except to exalt the lowliest. And who knows? This millennium might bring that stunning reversal.
O Emmanuel, w
alk with us into the future.
means "God with us," and isn't that exactly the kind of God we want? Not the God of abstractions or wars, not the punitive God or the distant God or the legalistic God. We want a God who wears human skin and is close as our pillow or coffee cup. In our more honest moments, we admit that the millennium stirs fear in us. We are not deaf to predictions of catastrophe; we want to rest securely in a God who desires only our good.
The possibility of such presence came home to a group one year as the "O Antiphons" were being sung. Several friends had gone to a local chapel for the service, but one man hadn't been there when they left together. They hesitated, not wanting to leave him behind, but on the other hand, not wanting to be late. Finally, they went ahead, hoping he'd catch up.
As the service continued, a voice from behind swelled the song. Without turning around, they knew their friend had come. The circle was complete. The evening could proceed in harmony. Perhaps it is like that with God. We may feel vaguely unsettled, but charge bravely on with whatever we're doing. The call of duty drowns out questions or hesitations. Then, suddenly, we feel that presence without even turning around. Things are set right. God is with us—Emmanuel.
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