Sermon – 24 December 2017
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The O Antiphons: wonder, story, ‘Here am I’
Psalm 89; Luke 1: 26-38
Echoing through our readings today is a sense of wonder, mystery, stories and songs of God, as in Ps.89:1: ‘My song shall be always of the loving kindness of the Lord.’
Despite or perhaps because of our extraordinary material prosperity and independence, both in comparison with the past and with most of the world at present, we now live in a public culture full of questions, pressures and expectations, often suspicious of authority and tradition, a culture which seems to be competitive and judgmental as instantly as technology allows, permissive and puritanical in turn.
These things have their place but if they prevail they influence us to cut down our space for wonder and story, which have both been so intrinsic to our humanity. They can lead us to a parched view of our sacred stories where we get stuck on the modern question, ‘how could it happen like that?’ – which is the wrong question.
(If that immediately leads you to wonder what is the right question, perhaps it is something like: ‘what might this story tell us about God, Jesus and ourselves?’ – then it genuinely becomes a living Word to us).
And the desire for and need of wonder and story seem as strong as ever in the world. Perhaps it would be good if we longed for them more in the church too?
On this last Sunday of Advent, this Christmas Eve, if we can respond, like Mary, with wonder and faith and hope, rather than with fear and scepticism, these stories enrich our lives and help us to live as God’s children. They help us to take our part in answering the Lord’s prayer when we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come’.
The ancient Advent Antiphons give us more pictures to inspire us. They are founded in seven different titles of the Messiah, each one referring to the prophecy of Isaiah, the great prophet of Advent. The Antiphons are sung or recited at Vespers (that is, Evening Prayer) in the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian traditions.
They are referred to as the “O Antiphons” because the title of each one begins with (for any Latin scholars present) the vocative particle “O”.
Each antiphon is a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture. They are:
[December 17]: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adonai (Lord and Ruler)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (Rising Sun, Dayspring, or Morning Star)
Dec 22: O Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
December 23]: O Emmanuel (With Us is God)
The O Antiphons have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church. Our great Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons. I want to use it verse by verse to reflect on them and to offer space to renew our sense of wonder on this special day. It brings the different pictures in the Antiphons together in an epic journey through the story of creation and salvation in which we all have a part.
[We will hear one full verse now on the organ]
ONE – O Sapientia
O come, thou Wisdom, from on high!
Who madest all in earth and sky,
Creating man from dust and clay:
To us reveal salvation’s way…
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
- “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 11:2-3
TWO – O Adonai
O come, O come, Adonai,
Who in thy glorious majesty
From that high mountain clothed in awe,
Gavest thy folk the ancient Law…
The Lord gave the Law (the Ten Commandments) to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus chapter 20).
- “[…] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” Isaiah 11:4
- “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Isaiah 33:22
THREE – O Radix Jesse
O come, thou Branch of Jesse! draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From the dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell, thy people save…
Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
And from Isaiah:
- “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah 11:1
- “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” Isaiah 11:10
FOUR – O Clavis David
O Come, thou Lord of David’s Key!
The royal door fling wide and free;
Safeguard for us the heavenward road,
And bar the way to death’s abode…
- “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Isaiah 22:22
- “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.” Isaiah 9:7
- “…To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.”Isaiah 42:7.
FIVE – O Oriens
O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb…
A literal translation of the Latin Oriens gives “O Rising Sun”, but the poetic “O Morning Star” or “O Dayspring” is often preferred; the sense and hope in the Messiah of The Dawn Breaking, the Light of the World,
From Isaiah 9:2 –
- “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
SIX – O Rex Gentium
O come, Desire of nations, show
Thy kingly reign on earth below;
Thou Corner-stone, uniting all,
Restore the ruin of our fall…
(from Haggai 2:8):
- “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6
- “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4
- “But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.Isaiah 64:8
And the last of the Advent Antiphons:
SEVEN – O Emmanuel
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel
That into exile drear is gone,
Far from the face of God’s dear Son.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
- “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14
(Emmanuel means God is with us).
We long for the God who is with us, to be with us. There is something strange here about our Christian living in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet.’ Our human condition on our journey through this fallen world. For God is with us. He came into the world in Christ, and through His Spirit He has not left us orphans.
Yet though we are people who have seen a great light, we are also the people who walk in darkness. We do not always know, see, hear and touch the God who is always with us. Our journey of life must also be a journey of faith.
Amidst it, as a Church, we strive to open the doors, turn on the lights, offer healing hospitality, share our sacred stories, witness to hope, to proclaim that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
As in the Advent Antiphons:
O Radix Jesse,
O Clavis David
O Rex Gentium,
At the end of Advent, the new beginning of our church year, may these great pictures of our Lord and our salvation strengthen our living as disciples of Christ.
And may we say again with Mary:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)
O Wisdom, Lord and Ruler, Root of Jesse,
Key of David, Rising Sun, King of the Nations, Emmanuel. Come, Lord Jesus.
James Percival, Team Rector of Limpsfield & Tatsfield