Last year I wrote a series of posts on the O Antiphons, intending to do one per day until Christmas. I got through four and posted a belated O Oriens and O Rex Gentium, but the seventh, O Emmanuel, I never completed. This year, living in Eastern Europe, I’ve not been getting the usual sights and sounds of the Christmas season. Stripping away the family and commercial jollity gives a different feel to these last weeks of December, and I doubt the Georgian festivities surrounding Eastern Christmas (January 7) will wholly replace it. But it is still a good time to meditate on these traditional Latin hymns, as midwinter brings in the new year.
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O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio gentium, et salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.
O God with us, our king and lawgiver,
the nations’ expectation, and their savior:
come to save us,
Lord, our God.
We conclude Advent with an antiphon to Christ Emmanuel, whose sign embodies the focal truth of the incarnation: that God is with us.
There seems little to say about this antiphon. It is brief and direct, summing up the ones that came before. We may note a slight shift from the previous verse: Christ is now not merely the nations’ desire, but their expectation. Christ is in the Virgin’s swelling womb; in the fullness of time, he will appear. Still there is a double significance; we sing the antiphon in light of the parousia (coming) for which we wait, as Christ’s Body is built up on earth and eagerly looks forward to its birth under a new sun.
But we should not miss the beautiful simplicity of this antiphon, which proclaims Christ as “our king and lawgiver,” our savior, and most importantly, Emmanuel.
The first Emmanuel, according to Jewish tradition, was Hezekiah in the 8th century BC. The prophecy of Isaiah 7 was given on the highway to the fuller’s field, by the walls of Jerusalem. Isaiah went there to deliver a promise to Ahaz, King of Judah, who was beleaguered by war with Syria and northern Israel. Ahaz, afraid of being overrun, was promised by Isaiah that Judah would endure. Isaiah additionally told Ahaz to expect a sign: a boy-child from the womb of a young woman. By the time this boy attained the age of reason, his enemies’ lands would lie desolate.
This boy proved to be Hezekiah, one of Judah’s last great kings. Hezekiah’s reign witnessed the utter and final destruction of Syria and the apostate Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, but Hezekiah’s family and a remnant of his people were spared, and the Holy City escaped the general devastation.
Although the immediate import of the Emmanuel prophecy is obvious, rabbis for centuries following discerned messianic undertones. Emmanuel was not simply an earthly king in a line of kings, but the eschatological King, just as Hezekiah was regarded as a messiah but not the Messiah. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint rendered the Hebrew word almah, which does not necessarily imply virginity, with the less ambiguous parthenos; it was in this sense of virgin that St Matthew applied the prophecy to Christ. The virgin conception, from a previously existing “deep” or spiritual reading of the Hebrew, is to Christian exegetes a clear sign that the divine Emmanuel is here.
The original prophetic passage puts great emphasis on the fact that Emmanuel signifies judgment of the wicked peoples who oppress Judah. The Assyrian storm, Isaiah warns, will shatter nations and fill the lands with destruction. “Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” Adonai will hide himself for a time; his followers will look out over the earth and see only darkness, sorrow, and gloom. Yet he asks his people to hope in him. Eventually, a great light will rise over them, and it will put an end to war and trouble; the reign of this royal child will bring endless peace and justice.
This is the outlook of Advent, the promise that salvation is already at work in the bleakness of our time, even as darkest midwinter turns the year and brings the slow increase of light. Whether the imagery is that of an ordering wisdom, or fire on a mountain, or the flowering of a dead root, or the key to a prison door, or the rising sun, or a king in glittering robes, or the birth of a child, the antiphons present us the truth with which they culminate: that all the fullness of deity has appeared among us, for us, and as one of us.
The Word became human, that we humans might become as he is, wrote Irenaeus. Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s assumption of our nature and mortality, that he might convert it to immortality.
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At the beginning of this series, I remarked that the antiphons seemingly figured a “cosmic descent.” By this I meant that they move us liturgically from the point of highest transcendence to the point of closest immanence, from Cosmic Christ to Infant Christ. I wouldn’t be surprised if the antiphonal sequence also references a descent through ancient cosmology; line the antiphons up with the attributes of the classical planets from Saturn to the Moon, and there are some pleasing parallels. The only one that doesn’t appear to fit is the placement of O Oriens for Venus, but I think, given what I have discussed in the entries for O Clavis David and O Oriens, it is not unreasonable to suppose the former corresponds to the sun and the latter to Venus. The English traditions of translation certainly would corroborate.
There are other explanations, of course. Honorius of Autun (12th century) proposed that the antiphons follow the traditional order of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, enumerated as follows: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Love. In medieval monasteries, the antiphons were linked to monastic positions: the abbot would intone O Sapientia, the prior O Adonai, the gardener O Radix Jesse, the cellarer O Clavis David, and the infirmarian O Rex Gentium. There is also the theory that the antiphons were arranged so the first letters of each, read backwards, spell ERO CRAS (“I will be tomorrow”), but I cannot comment on that bit of cleverness. Various other antiphons were sometimes included during the medieval period, to the Virgin, to St. Thomas the Apostle, and to Gabriel.
This, then, is the complete Christology of the O Antiphons:
- O Sapientia tells us Christ was begotten of God as Wisdom and participated in the creation of the world.
- O Adonai tells us Christ is the God of Israel and the Old Testament scriptures, appearing to Moses and giving the Law.
- O Radix Jesse tells us Christ is a human messiah of the Davidic line, founding a paradisal kingdom that will overwhelm the world.
- O Clavis David tells us Christ has received authority over all things in heaven and earth, and he has used this authority to free the captives of death.
- O Oriens tells us Christ is the divine light ascending over the earth, a sign of the hope of salvation.
- O Rex Gentium tells us Christ is the king who unites all mankind, transfiguring us into a new human race.
- O Emmanuel tells us this Christ is here with us, bringing salvation.