We must have sung the hymn “O come, o come Emmanuel,” at some point when I was growing up. But I remember hearing it for what seemed like the first time. I was in college and had stayed on campus until just before Christmas Eve. It had been a horrible semester academically, and after I turned in my last examination, I stopped into the church just off campus. A handful of people were in the middle of Evening Prayer, so I joined in. The service continued according to the Prayer Book in a familiar way until, just before the end, the priest invited everyone to open a Hymnal. She invited us to sing stanza 2 of Hymn 56. Without accompaniment, we sang somewhat tentatively
O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
We stopped there. The small space of wood and stone kept the echo of those last words in a way that made me want to sing more. But I also realized that this “wanting to sing more” helped me to understand the waiting and the longing of Advent. In the singing of “O come” there was a kind of quiet joy. There was what I might call a sad hopefulness, a realization– all at once– of sin and despair, but also of redemption and new life. Little did I then know that I had stumbled upon an age-old spiritual practice of “singing my O’s.”
The words we sing in “O come, O come, Emmanuel” come from what are called the “O antiphons,” also known as the Great antiphons or the Greater O’s. That term “antiphon” has come to be associated almost exclusively with music, though really, any sentence said before some other text and then repeated again afterward is an antiphon. We just used an antiphon with the “alleluia” verse before the proclamation of the Gospel. At Matins, or Morning Prayer, we use antiphons before and after the opening psalm that we say almost every day.
In tradition monastic worship, the Greater O’s are antiphons that are said or chanted with Magnificat at the evening office in Advent. At All Souls, we’ll use them in Matins, or Morning Prayer beginning on Friday of this week. Some traditions begin them on December 16, adding an antiphon for the Virgin Mary; while others begin on the 17th, as our hymnal organizes the verses of the hymn we just sang.
In medieval monastic communities, the antiphons were read by the members of the community in reverse order of rank. And so the abbot began, continuing through the various officers such as the gardener and the cellarer, and the final antiphon would be led by the most junior member. Especially in the Middle Ages, people loved form and order, and so it’s no huge surprise that the O Antiphons developed a special order of their own. It occurred to some monk, at some time, that the antiphons could be arranged so that the second word of each formed an acrostic.
If you notice the second word of each antiphon: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O radix Jesse, O clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex gentium, O Emanuel; then when read backwards (from the point of view of December 23) spells ERO CRAS. This simple acrostic gives way in Latin to the phrase, “Tomorrow I shall be present.” To the medieval monk, this just heightened the expectation for the Christmas vigil and the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ our Lord. It was as though Christ himself was singing in answer to the prayers of the faithful.
The sense of longing for God’s presence runs through the verses of the hymn as well as through the original antiphons, where the main verb is the Latin veni, or “come.” “Come, and teach. Come and redeem. Come and deliver. Come and lead. Come and enlighten. Come and save.” Some scholars suggest a close connection between this veni and one of the earliest prayers of the Christian Church: maranatha, “Lord, come.” The same prayer concludes Saint John the Divine’s vision in Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
When we say, or sing, or pray our O’s, we follow in that line of believers who have longed for the coming of a Messiah. The O antiphons remind us of this history of longing, even as they speak powerfully to those things for which we might personally long and desire.
Whether you join us for Matins, or sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” use them at home with your family or alone, or perhaps use the O antiphons as guides for prayer or meditation this season, “keeping our O’s” can be a particular joy.
Through music, prayer and mystery, may God continue to work among us and within us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.