O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Tomorrow, December 17, begins the Octave before Christmas Eve. During this time, the Catholic Church signals the intensifying of our longing for Christ’s coming by praying the O Antiphons during Evening Prayer.

At our parish Reconciliation Service the other night, our Director of Liturgy (aka, my friend Dan) based the prayer we did while people were going to the sacrament on the O Antiphons. For each antiphon, we sang a the relevant verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel and then had a scriptural reading that related to the antiphon, a short reflection designed to facilitate an examination of conscience and recitation of the antiphon. In between each antiphon, members of our choir sang one or two songs.

Dan asked me to prepare and read the short reflection on each antiphon. I share them here, in each case, following the antiphon to which each relates. You can reflect on them in a single sitting if you like. However, you may want to consider taking one each day as we approach Christmas. (In our service, we both started and ended with O Emmanuel, so I am presenting them that way here.)

  • O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”

    Emmanual. From two Hebrew words: El…God; Immanu…with us.  Emmanuel.  God is with us.  Do I trust that no matter what, my God is always at my side, always seeking to set me free?

  • O Sapientia: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.”

    Sapientia.  Wisdom.  The ability to see the world as God sees the world.  Do I see things with the eyes of the God who was born in a stable, considered to be of no importance, and rejected by many who heard him?

  • O Anonai: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.”

    Adonai.  My Lord.  The Lord of Lords.   When I construct my vision of life, do I realize you must be the center of it?  Not institutions, not other people, not my plans, not my talents – but you?  How do I respond when you say, “Follow me”?

  •  O Radix Jesse: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

    Radix Jesse.  Root of Jesse, the father of King David.  Though the house of David had lay dormant for 600 years, God brought life from an apparently dead stump.  Do I trust that God can bring life from death?  That no matter how dark things look, God can bring light?

  • O Clavis David: “O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.”

    Clavis David.  Key of David.  When Jesus walked the earth, he broke down barriers that separated people.  Am I a force that brings unity to a divided world?  Do I unlock doors or lock them?  Jesus locked no one out of his heart?  Can I say the same for me or are there people I keep locked out of my heart?

  • O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

    Oriens.  Radiant Dawn.  God lights the darkness in many ways, revealing Godself in the day-to-day realities of our lives – people we meet, things we experience, our time in prayer.  Am I fully open to receiving that light?  Do I recognize the “radiant dawns” God sends in my direction?

  • O Rex Gentium: “O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.”

    Rex Gentium.  King of all nations.  But not a monarch that rules by force.  Instead, a King of Peace who establishes his rule by love.  If we are filled with the love of God, we can’t help but share that with the world.  Do I accept the unconditional love that God offers so freely?  Do I know that with that love I need nothing else?

  • O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”

    In the words of Meister Eckhard: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself?  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son is I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?  This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”  What am I doing this Advent to help birth Christ into the world?

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    The O Antiphons

    The O Antiphons form a part of evening prayer during the Octave before Christmas. Almost everyone, even if he or she doesn’t pray them in their traditional form, has some familiarity with them, since they appear in a modified form in the popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Each of the seven antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah, each refers to a prophesy of Isaiah and each contains a different petition. (You can find the O Antiphons in their traditional form, with scriptural texts, here.)

    In different Advent retreat settings, I’ve encouraged retreatants to write their own O Antiphons. We live in a different time and place than when the “O” antiphons were composed. In addition, each of us has our own needs and our own issues with God. Writing our own “O” antiphons gives expression to: Who is God for me? How do I name God? And what are my deepest needs? How do I need God to come to me.

    I engaged in this prayer exercise myself during an Advent Week of Directed Prayer several years ago. Both the writing of the antiphons and the reflection surrounding the writing was a special time between me and God. Although they are personal to my own particular needs, I share a couple with the hope that it might prompt your own reflection.

    O Heart of my Heart,
    You know my desire to be one with you;
    you gave it to me.
    Come, help me remove the faces of my self-image
    that separate me from you.

    O Source of Life,
    I sometimes look elsewhere for security,
    and grow anxious about my needs.
    Come, help me to see that in you alone
    lies my security and protection.

    O Patient Lord,
    You allow me to take my own steps,
    never forcing me along the way.
    Come, help me be patient with my humanness,
    and remind me of your presence when I falter.

    During an evening session of one Advent weekend retreat, the retreatants each wrote one antiphon, which we all then shared during evening prayer, lighting a candle as each one was recited. If you were to write one antiphon to God, what would you say?