The ancient "O Antiphons" salute the coming Messiah under his various titles. How might today's Christians express these poem-songs?
Advent is my favorite liturgical season. Spending four weeks in preparation for an event that is “yet to come” but “already present” challenges me to delve ever deeper into the mystery of Incarnation. As a community of faith we are called to find something new in each Advent season, rather than go through the motions of repeating something that has grown old and tired through centuries of repetition.
In Advent we are challenged to breathe new life and contemporary meanings into ancient texts such as the church’s seven “O Antiphons of Advent.” Dating from the eighth and ninth centuries, these prayerful poem-songs address the coming and already-among-us Messiah. These Scripture-based prayers emerged from a mix of Jewish and Christian faith communities’ fear, impatience and glimmering hope. They invoke him by various titles passed to us in both the Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures and they prod us disciples of today to expand our view of “God-with-us.”
O Wisdom! How we need it in dealing with family issues that sometimes seem out of whack and beyond our control to fix.
O Lord (Adonai), gently ruling over what is unruly in us.
O Root of Jesse, tapping into our deepest needs and desires; alive in the innermost space of our being.
O Key of David, opening without intruding the locked and blocked areas of our hearts.
O Rising Sun, offering daily confirmation that life goes on no matter what are the travails of a given day.
O King, servant leader, showing us the true meaning of leadership.
O God-with-us, now and always.
In the weeks preceding Christmas some of us pray a different set of antiphons, steeped in our own lived experience of expectation, anxiety and longing. The antiphons parodied below express the real tension many families face in preparing for Christmas.
To the tune of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” small children might sing: “O when, O when, will Santa ever come?” Teens, like fledglings daily gaining strength in their nests, might have as their antiphon: “O, will I ever (or never) turn eighteen?” or something like that. Adult Christians bear the brunt of Christmas preparations. They plan, shop, cook, decorate their homes and make it all seem effortless when joy erupts around their families’ star-crested trees. Their prayers, like the broader church’s, are several: “O please, don’t let me forget what it’s about,” or perhaps, “O please, dear Lord, let everyone be happy,” knowing that it takes more than the coming of the Messiah to make some people happy. Or even, “O God, how will we pay for all of this?”
Yet it is in this human restlessness and with these contradictions that we live and beg for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Our parish Advent liturgies help to dispel our impatience, when God seems slow to answer our prayers. They buoy our hope, which is the door to deeper faith.
Sacred words penetrated our ancestors’ hearts and lit their path through life. They held aloft the inspired text as a bright flame of promise. As Advent Christians we remind ourselves that the Messiah’s flame burns bright within our communities. We are also aware that any darkness we experience is not from absence of Emmanuel, but from our own feeble vision.
Al Garrotto is RCIA coordinator and bereavement minister at Christ the King Parish, Pleasant Hill, CA (www.ctkph.org). His fourth published novel, I’ll Paint a Sun (Genesis Press), was released in March 2005. He invites you to email him at algarrotto.comcast.net and visit his websites at www.blsinc.com/garrotto.htm and www.authorsden.com/alfredjgarrottohtm.
(c) 2005, Alfred J. Garrotto
Originally published in Today's Liturgy With Children, Oregon Catholic Press, November 2005 Issue.