O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL - THE O ANTIPHONS AND ERO CRAS - FR. JOSEPH C. ALSAY, SAINT AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
A Sermon delivered by
the Reverend Joseph C. Alsay
Second Sunday of Advent
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
The Advent hymn we just sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” goes back about 900 years, to the 12th century. But the texts on which this hymn is based go back a few centuries before that, even–maybe 1200 years ago or more. They are known as the Great “O” Antiphons, and you can see them displayed on our dossal, given in loving memory of Alice Norton.
What is an antiphon, you ask? An antiphon is a little framing verse that is sung before and after a canticle or a psalm. These O Antiphons were chanted before and after the Magnificat at Vespers during Advent. There are seven of them, and historically they were used over the last seven days before Christmas Eve Day, in other words, from December 17 through December 23.
Now look at the structure of these seven antiphons. Each one consists of three parts. First there is an address to Christ, using the vocative “O” and a biblical title to address him: “O Wisdom”: “O Adonai”; “O Root of Jesse”; “O Key of David”; “O Dayspring”; “O King of the nations”: and “O Emmanuel.” Now of course these O Antiphons originally were in Latin, which was the universal language of the church for most of Christian history. And so you can see the Latin titles, in order: “Sapientia”; “Adonai”; “Radix Jesse”; “Clavis David”; “Oriens”; “Rex Gentium”; and “Emmanuel.”
So the first part of each antiphon is the address of “O” and a title. The second part is a description of something about Christ that fits the title–for example, for “O Dayspring,” the words, “splendor of light everlasting,” amplifying that particular term. The third part of the antiphon, then, is a petition, a prayer to Christ, asking him to “Come” and do thus and such, whatever it is, in order to help us.
“Oh, well, now all that’s pretty interesting, Father,” you might say. “I learned something new today.” But friends, these O Antiphons are not merely some dusty artifacts from the distant past that you can know something about, in a detached sort of way. No, these are prayers you can use! For they address the living Christ, who still comes to help his people. Through these O Antiphons, we learn to know him more fully and to call upon him in faith.
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love: You create the universe and hold all things together with strength and sweetness. Come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: You, who in Jesus fulfills the requirements of the law and teaches us the law of love. Come with your strong hand and stretch out your mighty arm to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings fall silent before you; nations bow down and worship you. You are the sign of God’s love for all his people: Come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
You open what no one else can close again; You, close no one can open. Open the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: Come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dayspring, Dawn, or Rising Sun,
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, whom all the peoples desire, and keystone of the Church:
Come and save the creature, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
Come to save us, Lord our God!
The order of the prayers is significant. Starting with the last title in reverse order, the first letter of each (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapienta) forms an ACROSTIC: the Latin words Ero cras, which speak Jesus’ response and promise to us. “Tomorrow, I will come.”
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