O Antiphon, O Antiphon
Oh, my! This time of the year we often hear the strains of O Christmas Tree and O Holy Night playing on radios and in shopping malls.
The Christian Church, however, is still officially in the preparatory season of Advent. While we ready ourselves to celebrate Christ’s coming at Christmas, we’re even more so preparing for His Second Coming on the Last Day. At the same time, we’re also mindful that He continues to come to us in Word and Sacrament. Thus Advent acknowledges and celebrates what we often call Christ’s “three-fold coming.”
The hymns and appointed Scriptures for the Advent season touch on all three aspects of Christ’s coming. We might sum them up by saying that Advent is our prayer to Him: “O Jesus, as You came in human flesh as the Babe of Bethlehem, come to us now in mercy through Your Word and live in our hearts, that we might be prepared for Your coming in glory to raise us to everlasting life.”
Of all the preparatory hymns, perhaps none is better known than — and well-loved as — Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel. The song’s seven stanzas use a variety of biblical images to speak of Jesus. The hymn masterfully connects Old Testament prophecies with New Testament fulfillment.
Where did we get this hymn? And what are those antiphons mentioned in this article’s title? An antiphon is a brief verse, usually sung before and after a Psalm or a canticle in liturgical churches. The O Antiphons, dating from no later than the 6th Century AD, were written to be used with the Magnificat, Mary’s song of faith from Luke 1, the traditional canticle for Vespers, Christianity’s ancient service for the close of day. They were intended to be sung over the seven days preceding Christmas Eve.
We call them the “O” Antiphons because each begins with that interjection. Their traditional order from the 17th through the 23rd of December is as follows: O Sapientia (Wisdom), O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Dayspring), O Rex Gentium (King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel (God with Us). They lead in roughly chronological order from eternity to the Nativity of our Lord.
By the 12th Century, a Latin hymn based on the seven O Antiphons came into use. During the mid-1800s, John Mason Neale and Henry Sloan Coffin made an English translation. Note that the final antiphon became the first stanza, thus we normally begin the hymn by singing, “Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel.”
If we reverse their traditional order, we can form a Latin acrostic from the first word of each of the antiphons: Ero cras. This can be translated, “I shall be [with you] tomorrow.” Thus we have a reminder that our Lord promises to return for us. Therefore, His Church pledges itself to join together to receive Him by faith through Word and Sacrament until we finally receive Him by sight on Judgment Day.
Visit the post Come, Lord Jesus! Look carefully at the seven O Antiphons and the seven stanzas of the hymn. See how steeped they are in Old Testament imagery. As Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me. (John 5:39)” He fulfilled the prophets’ words. He is God’s Word made flesh, who ransomed sin-enslaved humanity, both “captive Israel” and all the other nations of mankind.
See also Aardvark Alley with its daily postings of the O Antiphons plus links to additional resources.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, hymn writer, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
Article first appeared in The Concordian of 18 December AD 2013.