Thursday, December 10, 2009
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 December 2009.
“For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” — Isaiah 9:5
I admit it, from Black Friday to Dec. 22 I’m a Christmas curmudgeon. There is no “Holly-Jolly Christmas” jingling away on my car radio; no herald angels can yet be heard crying “Hark!” on the speakers in my kitchen. It may just be me, but I find it hard to cultivate a sense of expectancy when “Away in a Manger” is playing in the background. I’m distracted by hearing cattle lowing as the Baby I’m still waiting for is lauded for his contented sleep.
So, when Advent is on the horizon, I channel my inner geek and create a playlist for my iPod. It’s my own Advent soundtrack that I can tote from kitchen to car to office: Arvo Part’s “Magnificat,” “People Look East,” Bach’s Advent cantatas — and three versions of that iconic Advent piece “O, Come, O Come Emmanuel” help me turn down the volume on the raucous secular celebration and tune in to the softer sounds of my favorite liturgical season.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has been Advent’s theme song since at least the 12th century, its seven verses drawn from the magnificent “O antiphons” that traditionally precede the chanting of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve.
The antiphons in the Liturgy of the Hours are like keys to the psalms and canticles; each one opens a door into a slightly different place in its corresponding text. As the antiphons change with the day or season, we are encouraged to take up residence in another of the many rooms that each of these sacred songs has to offer. The traditional antiphons of these last few evenings of Advent feel like coming home to me, walking into a house filled with memories of years past, greeted with traditional sights and sounds.
But the “O antiphons” are far more to me than a familiar litany of titles for the Messiah. As these antiphons slowly unfold in the last days before Christmas, I find in them both invitation and challenge.
I hear an invitation to seek Christ here and now — and reminders of where to look. In the glories of a winter’s dawn seen on my way to drop the boys at school, in the people tucked into the shadowy places around the city who I walk past, He is there to be seen: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
The antiphons of these last Advent evenings are a counterpoint to the stillness that characterizes the season. They bring with them a note of challenge, a ring of strength. If, as St. Augustine says, we must “become what we receive” then these are not descriptions of a Savior distant from us in time and space, but of one who dwells within us now and forever. We are baptized priest, prophet and king — I hear in these antiphons once again what that baptismal call might entail. Can I speak of mercy and of wisdom? Could I free those held bound? Perhaps. With God’s grace.
These Advent antiphons let us contemplate the God we seek, the Messiah we yearn for, the Word made flesh we long to become. Here we can name Him: Wisdom, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord of Light. God among us.
Here in our midst, O God of mystery, you disclose the secret hidden for countless ages. For you we wait, for you we listen. Upon hearing your voice may we, like Mary, embrace your will and become a dwelling fit for your Word. Grant this through Him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.