This year for Advent we are exploring the ancient liturgy that is known as “The Great O Antiphons”. You may have never heard this strange title before, but most of you are familiar with the hymn we sing during Advent every year, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. We rarely sing ALL seven verses, but if you looked at each verse you would find seven different titles for the long-awaited Messiah:
Emmanuel, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David,
Dayspring, Desire of the nations.
Although the hymn starts with the title of Emmanuel, the O Antiphons save that title for the end. So today we begin with exploring Wisdom & Adonai/LORD in our Advent candle lighting, our music, scripture, and the word proclaimed.
In the ancient world, many different cultures lit fires as they waited for the return of the light in the Northern hemisphere. We light the candles of the Advent wreath to watch and wait for Christ’s coming into the darkness of our world, remembering the promises of God in our lives. In our candle lighting throughout Advent, you will hear the words of Scripture from the prophet Isaiah that the ancient “O Antiphons” were based on.
Lighting the Advent Candle – Christ, our Light and our Hope, will come. Listen to the words of Isaiah the Prophet from Chapter 11 as we light the first Advent Candle of Hope.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon 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)
O Wisdom that comes out of the mouth of the Most High, that reaches from one end to another, and orders all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence!
For the Lord is our judge, our lawgiver, our leader: he will save us.
O Lord of Israel, Come! Through bushes breathing fire, to Moses you gave Law;
O come, redeeming Ruler, with arms outstretched to save.
SING Christ be our Light
For centuries, the Church came together in prayer in the week before Christmas in anticipation of celebrating Christ’s coming. The O Antiphons were prayed from December 17 -23 each beseeching God with the words “O Come”! Originally these verses were meant to be sung and meditated on one day at a time, to help prepare for the birth of the Christ child. We will take the four Sundays of Advent to explore the rich symbolism behind each one.
These seven prayers—the Great O Antiphons hold haunting biblical images of creation, redemption, and ultimate restoration. They remind us that Christ, whose return we anticipate and await during Advent, is sustaining us already. The ancient church used the “O Antiphons” for Advent because they wanted a simple, yet profound way, to help people know the most important things about Jesus. Our Advent focus on the coming of Christ invites us to prepare for and to welcome Christ into our hearts once again.The antiphons serve to remind us of the promise of Christ’s presence and call us to live in hope.
The first title for the Messiah in the O Antiphons is Wisdom. We hear about Wisdom from the book of Proverbs starting with Proverbs 1:19: Wisdom cries out in the streets; she raises her voice in the malls; she cries out from the top of walls, on the roads leading in the city:
With great understanding, Wisdom is calling out as she stands at the crossroads and on every hill. She stands by the city gate where everyone enters the city, and she shouts: “I am calling out to each one of you! 5 Good sense and sound judgment can be yours.
Listen, because what I say is worthwhile and right. I always speak the truth and refuse to tell a lie. Every word I speak is honest, not one is misleading or deceptive.
“If you have understanding, you will see that my words are just what you need.
Let instruction and knowledge mean more to you than silver or the finest gold.
Wisdom is worth much more than precious jewels or anything else you desire.”
I am Wisdom. Common Sense is my closest friend; I possess knowledge and sound judgment.
If you respect the Lord, you will hate evil. I hate pride and conceit and deceitful lies.
Every honest leader rules with help from me. And rulers make laws that are fair.
From the beginning, I was with the Lord. I was there before he began to create the earth.
the very first, the Lord gave life to me.
When I was born, there were no oceans or springs of water.
My birth was before mountains were formed or hills were put in place.
It happened long before God had made the earth or any of its fields or even the dust.
I was there when the Lord put the heavens in place, stretched the sky over the surface of the sea. I was with him when he placed the clouds in the sky and created the springs that fill the ocean. I was there when he set boundaries for the sea to make it obey him, and when he laid foundations to support the earth. I was right beside the Lord, helping him plan and build.
I made him happy each day, and I was happy at his side. Pay attention, my children! Follow my advice, and you will be happy and wise. Come to my home each day. You will find happiness. By finding me, you find life, and the Lord will be pleased with you.
The hymn “Lift up Your Heads” from the 17th century is often sung on the first Sunday in Advent. Verse 1 is taken from Psalm 24:7: “Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” Verse 2 echoes the voice of Wisdom standing and crying out by the city gate. The gates are not a literal opening to a walled city, but a metaphor for the “portals of our heart.” Our hearts become a “temple set apart from earthly use for heaven’s employ.”
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The hymn Of the Father’s Love Begotten is perhaps the oldest known hymn we sing. During the 4th century, what was then considered orthodox theology was fending off attacks from what was considered heretical perspectives. One of the most controversial positions, held by Arius, was that God the Father and the Son did not co-exist throughout eternity. In poetic form, this hymn makes a case for what has become the orthodox understanding of the Trinity – that the Son has always, is always and will always be with God and us. “He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending he. Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see….”
We also know from Proverbs 8, that Wisdom co-existed with God the Creator from the very beginning.
HYMN OF THE FATHER’S LOVE BEGOTTEN
For as long as I can remember, the first Sunday of Advent always included singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with its strange words and concepts. The mysterious melancholy melody embedded itself in the fabric of my memory, with voices filling the rafters singing four-part harmony each time we came around to the refrain,
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!”
We start the rhythm of the liturgical season again today, in celebrating the first Sunday of Advent. There is something profound about marking the seasons, of coming around, again. St. Benedict once said, “Always we begin again” as part of his ‘rule’ for monastic life. The life of faith is one of repetition as well. And so we mark this new liturgical year by opening ourselves to the ancient prayers of asking Jesus to Come again – The origin of Advent means Come, Lord Jesus. We ask Jesus to come open our lives to the mystery of God’s presence, to satisfy our longing hearts, to satisfy the longing of the world. One of the ways early Christians addressed their longing for the Messiah was through the series of Advent prayers of the O Antiphons developed by Benedictine monks in the Middle Ages. These words gave hope to a people living in a world that was in so many ways desperately hopeless.
The 1st Messianic title of the O Antiphons calls forth Wisdom.
O Come thou Wisdom from on High, who orders all things mightily and sweetly,
to us the path of knowledge show, and help us in that way to go.
Many of us are familiar with the verses from Proverbs that Judy read that tell us about Wisdom standing at the crossroads and on every hill. Wisdom shouting by the city gates.
There are other places in Hebrew Scripture that speak about Wisdom. Catholic Bibles contain what is known as “hidden scripture”, called the Apocrypha. These books are missing from Protestant Bibles. Wisdom of Solomon chapters 7 & 8 speak of wisdom ordering all things, all creation, mightily and sweetly. Proverbs and The Wisdom of Solomon celebrate Divine Wisdom as a feminine aspect of God. The Greek word for wisdom is Sophia. Sophia is known as Woman Wisdom, Lady Wisdom, or as Eugene Peterson calls her in his translation in The Message, “Madame Insight“. Sophia speaks of herself as being present with God before creation in Proverbs 8:
“From the beginning, I was with the Lord. I was there before he began to create the earth. At the very first, the Lord gave life to me. I was right beside the Lord, helping him plan and build. Come to my home each day. You will find happiness. By finding me, you find life, and the Lord will be pleased with you.
The Wisdom of Solomon casts Wisdom/Sophia as a close companion of God and helper in God’s work, personifying wisdom as intelligent, holy, generous, humane, steadfast, powerful, clear, loving good, irresistible, AND free from anxiety. Sophia helps people to become friends of God, as well as prophets in the public square; and she orders all things well. Sounds like the Holy Spirit as well.
Some scholars associate this mysterious figure of how Sophia/Wisdom is described with the prologue to John’s Gospel. The Wisdom of Solomon describes Wisdom as God’s presence in the world, the Companion of God, the Light from God that shares in God’s work and dwells among humans. The writer of the Gospel of John sees Jesus as the creating and prophetic Word of God, made flesh.
What the gospel writer of John wrote about “the Word of God”, the Jewish tradition also said about Sophia/Wisdom. If you go back to Genesis 1:26, there is a peculiar plural pronoun: God says,
“Let US create humankind in our image – male and female.”
US? Could the Messiah/Jesus be the Wisdom/Sophia of God incarnate? If you substituted John’s language of “Word” with “Wisdom” and changed the pronouns, it would sound very much like another verse of the Wisdom text from Hebrew Scriptures. John used a Greek term, Logos, a masculine name for Word. The writer of Proverbs and WofS used the feminine for Sophia/Wisdom. Listen to see if it doesn’t sound like Proverbs 8 & the Wisdom of Solomon.
In the beginning was Wisdom. Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God. She was in the beginning with God. What has come into being in her was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And Wisdom became flesh and lived among us. We have seen her glory.”
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the liturgy from the O Antiphons names Jesus Christ as Divine Wisdom, which is Sapientia in Latin, and Sophia in Greek.
O Come, thou Wisdom from on high, that orders all things mightily comes directly from Wis of Sol ch. 8. Ch 9:18: “Thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and people were taught what pleases God, and they were saved by Wisdom.”
We could substitute Logos/Word here just like we substituted Wisdom for Word in John 1.
We often pray for wisdom. What if we prayed TO Wisdom, O come Thou Wisdom – to pray to the One who strives for order and grace in the world, a companion of God, the Creator and Source. There is room in the Hebrew Scriptures to claim Wisdom as one image of the Divine – using an ancient name, one of the O Antiphons. Naming Sophia as an image of the divine is powerful, because it helps us have a broader sense of who Jesus is: The divine Logos, the Word that creates life; and the Holy Sophia, the Wisdom that orders Creation.
The 2nd Antiphon is O Come O Adonai. It calls forth the most ancient name for God, and links Christ as the one who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 3 we remember that
“Moses asked for God’s name, and God responded, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’”
The Hebrew way to say I AM is “Yahweh.” However, the Israelites regarded the name of God as so holy, they would not pronounce it out loud. So wherever they came across the divine name, “Yahweh,” they substituted the word “Adonai,” meaning “Lord.” It is a way to say the name of the one true God who created the heavens and the earth, who spoke to Moses at the burning bush.
O Come, O Adonai, Through bushes breathing fire, who came to all on Sinai high
In ancient times once gave the law, In cloud and majesty, and awe.
As we prepare for Jesus’ coming this Advent, we are reminded of the many places in The Gospel of John where Jesus used the recurring refrain of I AM at least 7 times.
I am the Bread of Life; I am the Light of the World; I am the Gate;
I am the Good Shepherd;I am the Way, The Truth, and the Life;
I am the Vine; I am the Resurrection and the Life.
In this way Jesus links himself to the name God gave Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures. I AM, Adonai.
We heard the reading from Is. 33:22 from which the 2nd O Antiphon is based while he lit our Advent candle:
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our leader: he will save us.”
In Gal 6, Paul references Christ as the lawgiver as well.
You who have received the Spirit should restore each other in a spirit of gentleness. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ. And in the Gospels we recall Jesus referencing ancient scripture:“‘Which commandment is the most important? Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’”
And in the Upper room we remember the words Jesus offered,
Love one another as I have loved you.
Each antiphon or verse addresses God by a different name. The name for God in verse two, “thou Wisdom from on high,” is a reference to the Biblical tradition of praising God with feminine imagery and language. This verse ends with, “and teach us in her ways to go.” This hymn has BOTH feminine images AND masculine images AND other images for God. God is both Wisdom and Lord/Adonai. We end the series with with Emmanuel. “God is with us.”
O Come, thou Wisdom, Sophia, Logos, Word,
O Come thou Adonai, O Come Great Lord of Might, Come
Let us sing these verses of O Come, O come Emmanuel, allowing these ancient words and music to dwell even deeper within us and among us.
HYMN O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O come, O Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show, and help us in that way to go.
REFRAIN: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!
O come, O come, O Adonai, who came to all on Sinai high,
And from its peak a single law proclaimed in majesty and awe.