My dear friends:
One of the joys of my life as a Brother is our annual cycle of antiphons, which we sing before and after the Magnificat each evening. After thirty years, they return each year, each season, each feast, like a visit from an old friend. I look forward to their arrival; to singing them; to the memories they elicit; to the hope, the longing, the anticipation they express; to the beauty, the complexity, the quirkiness of the music; to the story they tell; to the feelings they put into words. This is especially true of the antiphons we sing during the closing days of Advent. Known as the Great O Antiphons, they are some of my favourite.
I love the way they begin, with three notes drawing out the first word O. I love how they continue… Wisdom… Adonai… Root of Jesse… Key of David… Dayspring… King of the nations… Emmanuel…. Virgin of Virgins. I love how they end… Come and teach… redeem… deliver… bring … enlighten… save us.
In these hauntingly beautiful antiphons, a year – indeed a lifetime, if not an eternity – of longing is summed up in a few words.
And who among us has not longed for something over these past ten months. Who has not longed for the gift of wisdom and prudence, as decisions – often on the fly, sometimes at great emotional cost – have had to be made? Who, because of being wise and prudent, is spending Christmas alone, or not with those with whom we normally would gather? Who has not desired the outstretched arm of God to redeem and deliver those we love, or even just ourselves, from the agony of loneliness and despair? Who has not needed the gift of light, as we have sat amidst such darkness? Who, confronted with our own mortality, or that of another, has not needed to be reminded that God is always with us as savior, healer, redeemer, and friend?
All these longings, and more, are summed up as we sing Come and teach… redeem… deliver… bring … enlighten… save us.
We who sit in darkness are longing for light, healing, and wholeness, just as did our ancestors in the faith. Like us, they too knew days of isolation, darkness, and despair. Like ancient Israel, we too long for the coming day of the Lord, which will bring plenty, peace, and wholeness. Since time immemorial, that has been the hope of the faithful and the promise of God. Like women and men of faith for generations, we sing in these dark days, O come, teach, deliver, enlighten, and save us. And in the silence God sings to us in response, Truly I will come.
One of the things which I love about these Great O Antiphons is how they form an acrostic. As we sing O…come, the titles for God in Latin declare God’s eternal promise, the first letter of each title forming the phrase Vero Cras: Truly I will come. That promised coming of God is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas.
In Jesus, a year, a lifetime, an eternity of longing is fulfilled. At Christmas, we no longer sing O…come. No longer does God promise Truly I will come. Instead on Christmas Day we sing Today! Today the Christ is born: today has a savior appeared: today on earth Angels are singing, Archangels rejoicing: today the righteous exult and say, Glory to God in the highest, alleluia.
This has been a year of longing like no other. We long for peace of mind and heart. We long for health and safety. We long to embrace those we love. We long for the promised day of God. In our longing we sing O come, teach, deliver, enlighten, and save us. And in the stillness of this dark night, God sings softly back Truly I will come.
Christmas will be very different this year. But believe me when I say Christmas has not been cancelled. God has heard our longing. God has heard our prayer. God has heard our song. O come, O come, O come. And God’s answer to a year, a lifetime, an eternity of longing can be heard in the cry of a tiny, helpless baby. Truly I will come.
In these Great O Antiphons, we have been singing O come, as all the longings of our hearts are put into a few words. But soon the promised day of the Lord will be upon us, and our longings will be turned to joy, and with angels and archangels we will shout and sing Glory to God in the highest. On that day, the Savior for whom we so long, will be in our very midst, indeed, in our very arms. On that day, we will know that God has heard our prayer, that God has truly come. On that day we will know God Emmanuel, God with us.
May God, who has heard the longings of your heart, be with you.
Please know that we Brothers hold you all in our prayers.
Faithfully in the One who is Emmanuel,
James Koester SSJE