Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 December 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Advent 4 O antiphons
This evening the Magnificat was preceded by an antiphon, a daily characteristic of Latin rite Vespers lost to the Church of England after the Reformation. On Sunday these antiphons are usually linked thematically with the Gospel of the Sunday, emphasising the unity of the Sunday celebration. From the sixth century, on the seven days before Christmas, antiphons signalling the approach of Christmas appeared, addressing the approaching Messiah with titles taken from Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah.
All beginning with the vocative, ‘O’, these became known as the O Antiphons or the Great Os. These verses are now also used as the Alleluia texts at Mass before Christmas. Each references an Old Testament title of God, goes on to allude to a story linked to that title, and concludes by imploring God to come to us: come and save us, come and redeem us, come and deliver us, and so on.
They are logically associated with the Magnificat, Mary’s acclamation of God as Saviour in her response to the the Angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would bear the ‘Son of the Most High’ to the world.
From 17 December we have
O Sapientia: O wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other mightily, and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence. cf. Ecclesiasticus. 24.3; Wisdom 1.8
Describing the Messiah as “wisdom coming forth from the mouth of the Most High”, links the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament to John 1, where we are taught that this Wisdom or Word of God, which orders all things from the beginning, became a human person, ‘God incarnate, man divine’.
O Adonai: O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. cf. Exodus 3.2, 24.12
Adonai means ruler or ‘Lord’; this is the name spoken aloud when Jews read the name of God in scripture, Yahweh, considered too holy to speak. Most English translations do the same, hence the frequent reference to God as ‘the Lord’ in our scriptures.
O Radix Jesse: O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: come and deliver us, and delay no longer. cf. Isaiah 11.10, 45.14; Romans 15.12
Root means descendant, branch of the family or stock. The Messianic king was to be of the family of Jesse, the father of David. In Romans 15.12 Paul quotes Isaiah 11.10, describing Jesus as a branch or descendant of the family of Jesse, David’s father, as well as of David. Our west window references this lineage depicting the Jesse Tree.
O Clavis David: O key of David and sceptre of the house of Israel; you open and one can shut, you shut and none can open: come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. cf. Isaiah 22.22; 42.7
This title, found in Isaiah, is picked up in Revelation: ‘these are the words of the holy one, who has the key of David’. Jesus, inheritor of the throne of his ancestor, and so holder of the key of David, is to have authority over the city of David, Jerusalem, and the kingdom of Israel. The key, as well as being the symbol of authority and power, will also ‘open the gates of the eternal kingdom’; the Son of God will liberate with the grace of eternal light all who have for many ages been imprisoned by darkness.
O Oriens: O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. cf. Malachi 4.2
The 21st of December, when this antiphon occurs, is the shortest day, the Winter solstice a turning point when the suns light begins to increase and the long dark nights grow shorter, a time of rebirth and renewal.
O Rex Gentium O king of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: come and save the human race which you fashioned from clay.
cf. Isaiah 28.16; Ephesians 2.14
‘King of the peoples’ emphasises how the child is regarded by those who have longed for his coming, as their saviour. In Christ, the Word incarnate, God gathers all who are of good will into one, in the unity of his Mystical Body; we ask Him to come and save our warring world, to re-establish all things in His love.
The last antiphon, this evening’s, is from Isaiah, the prophetic proclamation of the birth of Emmanuel (‘God with us’, the meaning of Christmas):
O Emmanuel O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of nations and their saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God. cf. Isaiah 7.14
The first letters of these Latin titles of Christ, read in reverse order from O Emmanuel, form a Latin acrostic: ero cras, almost ‘see you tomorrow’, ‘I will be [with you] tomorrow’, mirroring the theme of the antiphons.
So, as we reach the end of the sequence the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent, and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, says ‘Tomorrow, I will come’. A little like a mini-Advent Calendar from the 7th century, the O Antiphons not only add anticipation to Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion. They are, of course, best known to us from the hymn O come, o come Emmanuel, with which we began our Advent Carol service.
As Austin Farrer wrote in his sermon for this day (The Crown of the Year, Advent 4):
Advent is …not our coming to God, but his to us. We cannot come to God, he is byeond our reach; but he can come to us, for we are not beneath his mercy. Even in another life, as S. John sees it in his vision, we do not rise to God, but he descends to us, and dwells humanly among human creatures, in the glorious man, Jesus Christ. And that will be his last coming; so we shall be his people, and he everlastingly our God, our God with us, Emmanuel. He will so come, but he is come already, he always comes: in our fellow-Christian (even in a child, says Christ), in his word, invisibly in our souls, more visibly in this sacrament. Opening ourselves to him we call him in: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; O come, Emmanuel.