Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:
Prayer for the Jubilee
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
towards our own destinations, tables and families at the end of
The O Antiphons
Ancient prayers, ever-new. The
"O Antiphons," an ancient, liturgical Advent prayer from Scripture,
evoke similarly 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 stand now at the beginning of the
millennium, a unique threshold that few people in human history
have had the chance to experience. The Year of Jubilee presents
a perfect chance to set our sights again on Christ and celebrate
The word jubilee comes originally
from the Hebrew yobel, the word for a ram—s horn that trumpeted
the sabbatical year. During that year, the land was left fallow,
those in bonds freed, and mortgaged lands were returned to the original
owners. Imagine a mortgage today, which people have worked years
to pay off, being torn into shreds. That helps us understand why
the word jubilee was also influenced by the Latin jubilum,
meaning "a wild shout." It—s as if we whoop with joy: "Wow! All
our highest expectations, all our fondest hopes are realized at
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 millennial 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. We can follow the traditional
practice of reciting them during the seven days before Christmas
(see box on page 3), or adapt them to our own schedules and life-styles,
as I—ve tried to do in this Catholic Update. Perhaps more
important than when we pray them is that we let them stir
us again, calling forth what is deepest and best within.
Guide our decisions on our way to
you. At the dawn of the third millennium, 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. The prayer asks God:
"Enter this season and this millennium
with us. Help us to create and rejoice wholeheartedly, the way we
did as children. You who delight in dwelling with us, grace us especially
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.
So we pray: "Help us remember that
Christmas doesn—t mean the Perfect Millennium Party or the Best
Decorated House Award. We long for someone greater than ourselves,
better and brighter. Fill our empty heart-hollow, respond intimately
and gladly to our need. Span the polarities. Come."
O Flower of Jesse's Stem,
Help 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
So we pray: "For all the green shoots
in our lives, we are most grateful. Help us to welcome the stubborn
emergence of life when it seems unlikely, creativity when we thought
all hope was lost. May we surge into the years ahead with the energy
of those who created the Renaissance after the first millennium.
Give us the vision to see buried in the dead stump the tiny green
flicker of new life."
O Key of David,
Open 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
So we pray: "We are caged by injustice
and ignorance that prevent our being fully human. Bring us alive,
liberate us from our prison cells. Come, breaker of locks and opener
of doors, lead us to a new realization of your reign among us in
the Jubilee year."
O Radiant Dawn,
Burst 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 after 2000?
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.
So we pray: "Come, all the new life
we long for, nestled in Christ. Be to us radiant light in the gloom,
doors opening when all seems shut, another chance, a better way,
the hope of a brand-new era."
O King of all Nations,
Help 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
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.
So we pray: "Come, one who draws us
beyond our disputes, who silences our complaints in your great good
order. Bring us the vital joy of diversity, the secure peace of
unity. In you our plea is not contradictory, our hope is not disappointed."
Walk with us into the future.
Emmanuel 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.
So we pray: "Come, the fulfillment
of every longing, like the child—s wildest Christmas dream realized.
We know you may not burst upon us dramatically, but will come subtly.
Alert us to your quiet, attune us to your silences, show us your
Next: The Christian Family Tree
(by Thomas Bokenkotter)