From here on until Christmas I am going to narrow our focus on this ‘Advent blog calendar to a specific element of the Advent season, one which is very important in the liturgical life of the Church, and which has become a treasured part of our Madonna House Advent experience.
Tomorrow the Church begins its proximate preparation for the feast of Christmas. Liturgically, everything changes: the readings at Mass tell the whole story of the conceptions of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus, the antiphons at Mass and office take on a new cast, the whole movement of the praying Church is one of eager expectancy for the coming of Christ at the Christmas feast.
At the heart of this are seven special antiphons, properly used at Vespers for the Magnificat, called the ‘O Antiphons’. While they belong at Vespers at the canticle of Mary, and have been described as a crown encircling Our Lady’s head, the Church recognizes the centrality of these prayers and allows for them to be used in other contexts such as the Gospel acclamation. At MH, we don’t pray Vespers communally every day, so transfer the appropriate antiphon to Lauds and the Benedictus antiphon, as well as singing it at supper as we light the Advent wreath candles.
What are these antiphons? Each starts with the word ‘O’, invoking Christ under various titles. O wisdom… adonai… root of Jesse… key of David… dawn… king of nations… Emmanuel. There follows a little expounding of that title, drawing on the riches and beauty of Scripture. Then there is the great prayer of the Church: Come! Come and deliver… save… enlighten… redeem…
Hidden in the Latin original of the antiphons is a little word puzzle. If you take the initial letter of each antiphon, and read them backwards from Dec 23rd to the 17th, they make a Latin phrase:
Ero cras: I will be (here) tomorrow. Cool, eh? Running through all these antiphons is a great spirit that is the true animating spirit of Advent, the spirit that Advent is meant to awaken in all our hearts. It is why it is so important that we not lose our Advent focus in the midst of the secular world’s Christmas frenzy.
This is the spirit of longing, of ardent desire for God. It is a total focus on Christ as the one who has come and who is to come, and whose coming brings with it the whole realization of God’s plan for humanity, and the deep satisfaction of the cry and the hunger of every human heart.
This is what we need to focus on, and I will be presenting this next week each O Antiphon on its proper day, and meditating on it. But the larger theme of longing, of desire—this is something we need to talk about more.
What do we want, anyhow? What do we human beings want out of life? Most of us would probably (if we’re being honest) acknowledge that we want all kinds of things, any number of desires, some of them mutually exclusive. We want all sorts of pleasures and creature comforts, but we also want vibrant good health. We want the immediate satisfaction of our appetites, but we also want healthy strong relationships and meaningful work. We want to get our own way, but we also want to be loved…
What a mass of contradictions we are, and what a sticky minefield of cobwebs and dusky pitfalls (mixed metaphor alert!) we find ourselves in as soon as we attend to the question ‘what exactly do I want?’
It is the deep wisdom of the Church and of the Gospel that all our human desires, even the ones that seem rather base and selfish, are fundamentally and at root desires for God. Even simple desires for physical pleasure or getting our way are met in their innermost core by God who is all delight and beauty, and whose love affirms and confirms us in our innermost being. Certainly all the desires for truth, goodness, and beauty which take a million forms in the concreteness of human life are ultimately met and realized by communion with God. And our hunger for love which is at the core, perhaps, of our humanity, is superabundantly met by Love Himself, our hunger for life met by the Living One who bears us to eternal life.
So longing and hunger, desire and yearning—these are the human realities the O Antiphons ask us to tap into and direct God-ward. And with that, deep and confident expectation that God knows our hunger and will fill it—the expectation of a child on Christmas morning who is just sure that everything he wants will be under the tree awaiting him. To know that, not under but on the tree, God has placed the great Gift of Himself for humanity for all to receive, a gift wrapped in mystery and pain, perhaps, but nonetheless ‘just what we wanted’, it turns out. So that’s what we’ll be doing here at TTP the next seven days.