This date, December 17th, marks the beginning of a very ancient Advent Custom dating back to the fourth century. The singing of the “O Antiphons” or the “Great Antiphons.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, an antiphon is a short text sung before or after a psalm or a canticle.
These particular antiphons are sung at Evening Prayer and accompany the Magnificat—Mary’s song of praise as recorded in the gospel of Luke, which we sang today as our gradual hymn. Each one of these chanted prayers addresses Christ with a different messianic title taken from the Old Testament. They serve as a kind of liturgical countdown to Christmas Eve.
Anglican priest and scholar, John Mason Neale, translated a Latin hymn text based on these antiphons, and penned the popular Advent Hymn, O come O come Emmanuel.
The version of the text in our hymnal begins and ends with a paraphrase of the final antiphon,
O come, O come, Emmanuel,And ransom captive Israel,That mourns in lonely exile hereUntil the Son of God appear.
The name Emmanuel, which is also used in the repeated refrain, comes from a promise God made to King Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The title means “God with us.”
Although given to king Ahaz, The prophecy is broader than Ahaz’s particular moment; it is grand and cosmic in scope, speaking of God’s everlasting faithfulness to his servant David. It is the revelation of the eternal word of God breaking into human history. It is spoken not just to Ahaz, but to the nation, and indeed to the whole world, even to us. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Christ is the fulfillment of this promise.
Although Israel was no longer in exile in Babylon as they once had been, there was a sense that they were still waiting for the full restoration promised by the prophets. Israel’s situation is representative of the whole human race who mourns in exile and estrangement from God, but Christ comes to liberate us from exile and restore us to God’s blessing. He is God with us.
Christ is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. He is everything Israel and the world has been waiting for. Each of the verses of this hymn points us to an Old Testament promise or expectation fulfilled in Christ. There is a rich world of biblical truth behind each of these titles. I don’t have time to cover them all, a separate sermon can be given for each, but I want to walk you through them.
The first of the titles is O sapientia or O Wisdom,
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,Who orderest all things mightily;To us the path of knowledge show,And teach us in her ways to go.
Christ is the Wisdom of God who was with him before the world began. He is the eternal Word through whom all things were made and by whom all things are sustained. He is the light that enlightens all who come into the world. This same wisdom of God came among us and showed us the way to the father. If we strive to know and love wisdom, we must look to him.
The second antiphon is O Adoni, or O Lord.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s heightIn ancient times once gave the lawIn cloud and majesty and awe.
The ancient Jews had a prohibition against repeating the divine name. When they came to the place in the text where the name of God was written, they substituted instead the name “Adonai” which simply means Lord. Most English translations of the Old Testament continue this tradition. When you see LORD, written in all caps, it is a place marker for the name of God which we sometimes translate as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.”
In this verse Christ is identified as the Lord God, himself, the God of Israel and the giver of the Law. All of the Torah, or Law, is meant to direct us to Christ.
The third antiphon is, O Radix Jesse or O Root of Jesse
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, freeThine own from Satan’s tyranny;From depths of hell Thy people save,And give them victory over the grave.
David was chosen by God to be king out of all the sons of Jesse. It was from David’s line that the messiah was expected to come. Jesus is the Son of David, the root of Jesse, the promised Christ who conquered the grave through his death on the cross.
The fourth antiphon is, O Clavis David or O Key of David.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,And open wide our heavenly home;Make safe the way that leads on high,And close the path to misery.
Isaiah says of the messiah, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”
A key indicates control or authority. As the true king of Israel and God’s anointed Messiah, Jesus has been given all authority. He holds the keys to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. Therefore, he has the power to grant us eternal life.
The fifth antiphon is, O Oriens or O Day-spring,
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheerOur spirits by Thine advent here;Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Day-spring simply means sunrise. The power of sin has plunged the whole world into darkness, but Christ is like the light the breaks over the horizon and dispels the night. There is a certain poetry to the fact that now in the darkest time of year we wait for Christ the sun of righteousness to shine upon us once more.
The sixth antiphon is, O Rex Gentium or O King of the Nations. In our hymn today, it is paraphrased, “O come desire of nations.”
O come, Desire of nations, bindIn one the hearts of all mankind;Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Jesus Christ is not only the king that Israel was waiting for, but the true king of kings that all the world is waiting for. In a world torn apart by so many sad divisions, Jesus is the one that can unify us. He is the true Shepherd that will lead his people to peace.
The seventh antiphon brings us again to where we began. The promise of Emmanuel brings us to the climax of anticipation as we wait the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation when the Word became flesh. God came among us born of a virgin.
The O Antiphons teach us to hope, but they also contain a promise. Many have noticed that if you write out the first letter of the Latin versions of the titles from last to first they spell, Ero Cras which means, “Tomorrow, I will come.”
Was this intentional? No one knows. Regardless, it is awfully appropriate. In the O Antiphons we have not only a fitting prelude to Christmas, but they also give voice to the continued longing of God’s people. In so many ways, we still mourn in lonely exile. We struggle with sin, with injustice, with sickness, and death. We still wait for the fullness of God’s promise. We yearn with eager anticipation for Christ’s Second Advent when he will set all things right. Christ is here, and he is coming again. O come, O come, Emmanuel!