Thursday of the Third Week of Advent | Fritz Bauerschmidt
The “O Antiphons” are the antiphons used with the Magnificat (the Song of Mary found in Luke 1:46-55) at Evening Prayer on the eight days prior to Christmas. The Church has sung these as part of the liturgy since at least the eighth century, but they are probably most familiar as paraphrased in the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
They mark a shift in the season of Advent, when the liturgy turns from contemplating the second coming of Christ, at the end of history, to preparing to celebrate his first coming, in the midst of history. The texts draw on imagery from the Old Testament that expresses the hope of ancient Israel for a savior, a messiah, who would fulfill God’s promises: the promise made to Abraham that through him and his offspring the whole world would be blessed; the promise made to Moses that God would make his people a holy nation and priestly people; the promise made to David that his kingdom and lineage would not fail. These promises find their fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
But the O Antiphons, while rooted in God’s past promises that have been fulfilled in Jesus, also express our longing for the future redemption. For while we believe that in Jesus God has saved the world, we also know from experience that the world still awaits the full manifestation of that salvation. We know that our world still lacks knowledge. We know that we still need God to rescue and save us. We know that we are still exiled from God’s eternal kingdom and live in the shadow of death. And so we call insistently upon Christ to come to us: to teach, rescue, shine, and save. The O Antiphons express beautifully our belief that salvation is come in Christ and yet still awaits us.
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
The O Antiphon for this day draws on a passage from the prophet Isaiah: “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse…” It is a passage that promises a day in which God’s justice will be manifest in a righteous ruler like King David (who is the son—i.e. the root—of Jesse). But Isaiah doesn’t tell us when that day is, when this mysterious descendant of Jesse will appear to judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted, a sign of love for all God’s people.
Our faith tells us that Jesus is that root of Jesse’s stem, that by his birth and life, his dying and rising, he has already come without delay, that his kingdom is present among us. Our faith tells us that that day is our day. Yet in or day the kingdom is present to us in sign and mystery. We glimpse it when we welcome a child through the waters of baptism, or when we gather at the altar to glorify God and to be fed by Christ. We feel it when people respond to tragedy with generosity or when leaders act, not in their own interest, but in the interest of justice and mercy. But these are only signs, only glimpses, and it takes faith to read these signs, to know that our times really are the time of God’s great triumph.
So in Advent we wait. We wait for the feast of Christmas when we celebrate that day when Jesus Christ was born, the great sign to the world of the mysterious real presence of God’s kingdom of love among us. But we also wait for that day, the day when God’s kingdom will be present to us no longer in sign and mystery, no longer dimly perceived, but in the clear and certain light that flows from the Christ the Lamb.