Advent: The Symphony Continues
We just finished our first week of the Advent season and I want to talk about the O’s. Not just any O’s, the Great O’s. And for a guy who grew up in the NL East going to Turner Field rather than Camden Yards and wore a Javy Lopez “8” rather than a Ripken “8” in Little League, starting a post off with a Baltimore Orioles reference and then pivoting to an unrelated, though similar sounding, theological musing is new for me. Living in Annapolis for a year and a half, I’m still learning the cultural nuances of Oriole fans, but what I know so far is that that any franchise with a former All-Star first baseman that can leverage a name like “Boog” to sell truly great bbq, is a franchise that knows what its doing. And pivot.
I want to discuss the Great O’s: the Great O's of Christmas past and Christmas present. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not talking about the Palmer and a pair of Robinson’s great O’s. These Great O’s are specific to the Advent season. I’m talking about the O Antiphons. Now before you decide your bored and click over to ESPN or SI for actual sports commentary, just give me a minute and keep reading because our (surprising) usage of the Great O’s in the modern church is a perfect representation for what we are doing when we celebrate Advent!
O’s OF CHRISTMAS PAST
The O Antiphons, also known as the Great O’s, are seven statements that are spoken as worship to Jesus on the seven days before Christmas Eve. They all start with the word “O” and are an attribute of Jesus mentioned in the book of Isaiah. They go like this:
December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom) (Isaiah 11:2-3)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord) (Isaiah 33:22)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) (Isaiah 11:1, 10)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key or House of David) (Isaiah 22:22)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring) (Isaiah 9:2)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) (Isaiah 9:6)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God) (Isaiah 7:14)
The Great O’s are an ancient worship practice in the Church. They have been a part of Advent worship for centuries, referenced as far back as the 6th century by a Roman philosopher named Boethius, which means they could have been in existence much earlier. (Advent as a formal ritual goes even further back into church history!)
Historically, this worship practice has been around a long time and has been a major part of the Church’s celebration of the Advent season. But without going into too much historical detail, and with respect to Andy Hallmark’s historical attention span, the content of the Great O’s are a remarkably deep and beautiful way to worship our King who has come and will come again. Each statement is piece of Jesus’ true identity and when we reflect on them individually during the Advent season, focus and wonder from Scripture illuminate our minds.
Notice that I highlighted the first letter of the Latin word after the initial “O”? In addition to the individual worshipful exclamations of who Jesus is, the Great O’s taken as a whole and backward from December 23 - December 17 form the acrostic “Ero Cras.” This is some real Indiana Jones/ National Treasure puzzle stuff right here. “Ero Cras” is Latin for “tomorrow, I will come.” So, in effect, from December 17-23, the Great O’s give us a focused way to worship Jesus by pondering His first coming, all the while resting in the promise of His second coming! (Rev. 22:12).
Now you may be like, “That’s cool and all, but the only “O” I’ve ever recited is in the National Anthem at Camden Yards. I’m not really a high-church-liturgical kind of person.” To be fair, the Great O’s are typically found further back into church history or in more liturgical-based denominations with Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, and Presbyterians. (The acrostic and dates of the O Antiphons given above traditionally pertain to Catholic worship, though they are certainly not limited to a denomination!) However, even if you find yourself in a low-church tradition in the present, as is the case at Weems Creek, I guarantee that during the Christmas season you have recited the Great O’s and didn’t even know it!
O’s OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of my favorite Christmas carols. The melody. The words. The emotions. And when there are woodwind instruments involved…glorious. The song, as we all most likely know it, was first published in English as a part of the 1861 hymnal entitled Hymns Ancient and Modern, but its words echo a melody from a distant time. There is a connection from the modern to the ancient in this song — the first line of each verse of this song we sing each Christmas is one of the Great O’s! There are five verses in the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel and here are the first lines:
O come, O come Emmanuel (O Emmanuel)
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free (O Radix Jesse)
O come, thou Dayspring, from on high (O Oriens)
O come, thou Key of David, come (O Clavis David)
O come, Adonai, Lord of might (O Lord)
Five verses…five Great O’s! Now this is, to me at least, pretty cool. You have been channeling high-church liturgy Christmas after Christmas and didn’t even know it! Awesome. But aside from Southern Baptists getting a bit squirmy at the prospect of sharing a song with Lutherans and Anglicans, why is it important to know that a classic Christmas carol has its roots in the liturgy of the ancient church?
ADVENT: THE SYMPHONY OF EMMANUEL CONTINUES
What connects a song published in an 1861 hymnal to a ritual that goes as far back as the 6th century? What’s the relation? Well, obviously the words are similar, but I would argue that there is something deeper. Think of the O Antiphons and O Come, O Come Emmanuel as different movements of a symphony that began long ago. Almost twenty centuries ago, a divine symphony was given to a young couple, shepherds, and wise men that resounded Jesus Christ — God with us, the Rod of Jesse, the Dayspring, the Key of David, the Lord — had come to earth. That symphony has been passed down from generation to generation of believers so that the music played on a lowly night in Bethlehem at our King’s first coming is still played today and will be played until the glorious day of His second.
So here is one thought for the road: when we celebrate Advent, when we sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel or say the O Antiphons, when a family observes Advent on the stage on Sunday or in their homes throughout the week, we are all joining in the symphony of believers from all generation and in doing so are conserving the symphony for the next generation.
CONSERVING THE SYMPHONY FOR THE FUTURE*
So many things compete for our time, attention and resources during the holiday season. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the beauty, spirit and intent of Christmas can be ironically consumed by consumerism and activities. Surrounded by these competing orchestras, it is easy to lose the melody of the true symphony and what was meant to sound like the glory of Beethoven’s Ninth is replaced with a one-man band’s cheap imitation; flashy and trite with no depth or the power to make us sit back in awe.
However, when we carve out time to ponder and celebrate the coming of Christ, when we just take a moment and stop looking for the gift deals or sales, we not only find the peace our Prince promises, but we conserve the original, divine symphony for the next generation.
In his little letter, Jude urges believers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The word that our Lord’s brother used for “delivered” was a word that refers to a sacred trust or tradition. In this case, Jude was referring to the central truths of Christianity, of which of course is the first and second coming of Jesus. Paul similarly described this tradition being handed down in his letter to the Corinthian church: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3). If you are observing Advent this year, you received it from someone else who received it from someone else. The good news of Jesus travels at the speed of relationships and when we take time to focus on the coming of our King, especially when we reflect with our families, the divine symphony given long ago is conserved and passed on for a future generation of believers.
So the take-away: take time to learn the original sheet music from God’s divine symphony. As a believer, you are a part of a faithful symphony resounding the wonder and hope of Advent. The instruments may change throughout the centuries — some say the O Antiphons while others sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel — but the faithful performance of the Advent symphony is conserved and continues until our blessed hope is realized! Until then, let the symphony play!
*A great resource that goes further into conserving the faith through a deeper understanding of church history is Dr. Michael Svigel's RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith