Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Just before mass on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we light the fourth of the Advent candles continuing a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages. There are Christmas traditions that have endured even through the darkest of times, through wars, and famines, and pandemics. And one such tradition that has endured, with some, is the chanting of the O Antiphons.
The O Antiphons are seven titles for Jesus found in the Book of Isaiah. They were chanted as part of Evening Prayers (or Vespers) by monks as far back as the year 500.
They began the O Antiphons on the 17th of December and ended on the 23rd. The Antiphonic titles for Jesus are: O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of Nations, and O Emmanuel.
When the antiphons were written in Latin, the first letter of each antiphon spells out the Latin phrase: ero cras, which means, "Tomorrow, I will come."
The monks arranged the antiphons in a specific order. When the antiphons were written in Latin, the first letter of each antiphon spells out the Latin phrase: ero cras, which means, "Tomorrow, I will come." (1)
The most widely used English translation of the O Antiphons comes from the Anglican priest, John Mason Neale’s 1861 hymnal. In that same hymnal, Neale wrote an English paraphrasing of the antiphons, that is known today as the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel (2)
If we listen carefully to the words of O Come, O Come Emmanuel we will realize that they speak of the birth of Jesus not in its modern envisioning, that of “good tidings” and “peace on earth” and the giving of gifts; but in its first century envisioning. To the early Christians, Jesus came to ransom them, to set them free from the consequences of sin, that is, being deprived of eternal life with God. That was the source of their Christmas joy; that was the source of their peace. And this was all with an eye toward Jesus’ return. This was what Christmas meant to believers, for many centuries.
Modern ways of thinking have done more than just “commercialize” Christmas. They have undermined our whole understanding and appreciation of Christmas. Jesus came on that first Christmas to “dwell amongst us” and to die for us that we might again have access to eternal life with God – that’s the true peace on earth. That’s the “good news” the angels heralded; the “good news” we are to cherish.
As heart-warming as our celebration of Christmas often is, there’s really a divine purpose to Christmas.
This year, Christmas will be unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It’s an opportunity for us to reconsider just what Christmas means. Certainly, the good tidings and gift-giving are a wonderful part of Christmas. But as heart-warming as this celebration of Christmas often is, there’s really a divine purpose to Christmas.
Christmas is about God’s unfathomable love for us, so much so that He came to dwell amongst us, as one of us. And, as one of us, to die at our hands that we might have eternal life with the Father. When we let the denial of sin and its consequences, which pervades our culture today, shape our thinking, we are denied a true understanding of Christmas. When we lose sight of that divine purpose we are left only with the superficial. So, make singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel a part of your Advent time this year and reflect often on the original joy of Christmas.
My wife, Rose, and I wish you all a very blessed and meaningful Christmas this year.
‘till next time,
Dcn. Bob Evans
December 18, 2020
1. Fr William Saunders, “What are the O Antiphons?” Catholic Education, Feb 3, 2007.
2. J. M. Neale, Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861.