The Advent Season brings with it distinctive sights and sounds that alert us to the meaning of this liturgical season of grace, blessing and hope. Transitioning from Ordinary Time, which takes up the latter part of spring, summer and the majority of fall, we move from green vestments to the purple of the Advent season. Traditionally, this shade of liturgical color is distinct from the darker violet of the penitential Lenten season, for the “purple” of Advent is touched with tinges of blue that points our minds and hearts to Mary, who plays such a pivotal role in the Advent story. In fact, in the Anglican tradition, the use of what is called sarum blue, associated with the ritual traditions of Salisbury Cathedral, is an optional liturgical color within this season.
The Advent wreath with its distinctive candles, three purple and one of rose color, silently marks the passing of each of the Advent Sundays as we near the great feast of the Incarnation. Its light in the midst of the winter darkness touches our minds and hearts as we await the remembrance of the “dawn of salvation.”
The sights of Advent are combined with the sounds of this season. There is no more traditional melody that bespeaks the Advent season than the haunting chant of the familiar O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The text of this Advent hymn is rooted in one of the oldest and most important liturgical texts of this season. Each verse provides a musical reflection on the ancient O Antiphons that frame Mary’s great canticle of praise, the Magnificat of Evening Prayer, during the final seven days prior to the festival of Christmas. Beginning on Dec. 17 and continuing to Dec. 23, each day of this privileged octave prior to Dec. 25 is assigned a specific antiphon or text that captures a different dimension of the meaning of the Christ whose birth we commemorate at Christmas. Dec. 24 possesses a distinctive and unique antiphon filled with the anticipated joy of the birth of the savior. While the origins of these prayer texts are somewhat disputed among liturgical scholars, by the 8th century their use in the Liturgy of the Hours became standard in Rome.
The texts of these great O Antiphons are rooted in the scriptural imagery of the Advent prophet, Isaiah. Prophesying the coming of the anointed one, Isaiah speaks of the various titles that point to the meaning of the one in whom all the hopes and dreams of the children of Israel would be fulfilled.
In his article, “What are the O Antiphons?,” Father William Saunders presents a beautiful commentary on these ancient texts:
O Sapientia: O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation. Isaiah had prophesied, The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord. (11:2-3), and wonderful is his counsel and great is his wisdom. (28:29).
O Adonai: O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free. Isaiah had prophesied, But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the lands afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. (11:4-5); and indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us. (33:22).
O Radix Jesse: O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. Isaiah had prophesied, But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. (11:1), and on that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious. (11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:1).
O Clavis David: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom. Isaiah had prophesied, I will place the Key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open. (22:22), and his dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever. (9:6).
O Oriens: O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Isaiah had prophesied, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown. (9:1).
O Rex Gentium: O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust. Isaiah had prophesied, For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. (9:5), and he shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. (2:4) .
O Emmanuel: O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God. Isaiah had prophesied, The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.
As the great Feast of Christmas draws near and as we enter into the sights and sounds of these final days of our Advent season of hope and promise, may these words that will be on our lips in song and prayerful reflection deepen our anticipation for the Lord of Glory to make his home in our lives. May they help us to appreciate ever more profoundly this still point moment in human history because of him who is Emmanuel, God with us. c
Monsignor Holquin in the Pastor/Rector Emeritus at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano and the Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Orange.