By John Miller
In the last week of Advent, before Christmas reveals the answer to our prayers in the form of a literal new human life, a baby, who is also pure love and spirit, Christians pray the “O Antiphons.”
Medieval Catholic monks wrote these seven verses in the eighth century for recital during evening prayer from December 17 – 23, and each one calls out to the hoped-for Messiah using a different name.
We know they’re talking about Christ, of course, but the spirit of Advent is to not know. That’s why the wise monks addressed Christ with names that are clearly part of the answer but never quite find their mark.
The “O Antiphons” remind us that Advent is a desire, a love, a want that does not yet have an answer. It’s a longing for warmth in the middle of a cold night, knowing that warmth exists, but not yet knowing where you’re going to find it. It is, in a word, hope.
It’s been hard to find hope this year, amidst war and weird warm rains, and Advent is, among other things, a reminder that most of the 100 billion or so humans who’ve ever lived have felt fear and despair and quested in their hearts for light in the darkness.
Like most people I’ve always been most familiar with the popular rendition of “O Antiphons,” the familiar hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” An Anglican priest and writer named John Mason Neale, who’d already written “Good King Wenceslaus,” translated the “O Antiphons” and published the first English version in 1861.
I’ve always found both the text and the tune starker than almost all other Christmas music in its portrayal of what’s at stake for us. Try singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” after “O Come All Ye Faithful” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the opposite of joyful and triumphant.
In the song, humanity is “captive Israel” mourning in “lonely exile” and needs to be “ransomed.” (Israel, of course, is every human person making their way in this vale of tears, not the modern nation-state.) The promise which is meant to cheer us up sounds almost like a threatening order: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!”
When you sing carols this season, read the full version of the song, which includes translations of all seven “O Antiphons,” and these are worth fully parsing as we make our way on our Advent journey.
The medieval monks who wrote the “O Antiphons” wrote in a word game: If you take out the “O” and recite in order the first letter of each first word for Christ in Latin, you get ERO CRAS, which means: “Tomorrow, I will come.”
I propose another formulation, which is simply to list in their proper order these Messianic titles, which we might also call, with a nod to the multidimensional complexity of human beings, Jesus’ nicknames:
These are words for what, and who, we’re looking for, but what do they mean? In the liturgical calendar, the purpose of the “O Antiphons” is to bridge the Old and New Testaments and move from Advent to Christmas. That’s why the language rings with the rhythms of Psalms, Proverbs and Wisdom, the cries and contemplation of thousands of years of Jewish tradition, man begging for salvation and yearning for a final breakthrough of illumination and redemption.
For example, in the “O Antiphon” on December 18, we proclaim: “O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!” And on the last day of Advent, December 23, we implore God: “O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God!”
And then, it’s time for a change, time for God to answer our cries, time for a new way of looking at the world, and time for a new name for the love, and the human, we’ve been seeking.