Sunday, December 17, 2023

The dawn will break

Reflecting on the traditional liturgy as Christmas approaches:
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” derives from a far older cycle of Advent prayers called the O Antiphons. From the eighth century, the Western church has prayed these antiphons during Evening Vespers in the final days of Advent (December 17-23), calling out to the imminent Christ by a different title each evening. The vocative “O” resembles, in the words of theologian Oliver Treanor, “the womb of the Virgin in late pregnancy, round and full of Christ,” and each prayer calls out to the imminent Christ by a different title: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King of Nations, and finally, O Emmanuel.

These different prophetic titles given to Christ offer hearers multiple ways to receive the news of the gospel—that Christ came to atone for the sins of his people. Rich in symbolic imagery, history, and poetry, the O Antiphons speak to the mysterious and paradoxical nature of the Christmas story, in which an all-powerful God enters human history not in a blaze of almighty glory, but as a helpless child, out of wedlock, wrapped in swaddling clothes. ....

In the final title given to Christ in the antiphons, Emmanuel—God-with-us—humans are joined with God forever, as the hyphenation suggests. That God would take on human frailty, would suffer with humanity and in human flesh, is the basis upon which the logic of creation is radically upended: the wolf will live with the lamb, the last will be the first, and the meek will inherit the earth. In this new order even the most intractable human situations, in which hate or vengeance or greed seem destined to persist, become ripe for change. ....

We are far from the first, and won’t be the last, generation to call out for God to, as one of the antiphons puts it, “come and save man whom you made from clay.” The promise alluded to in the prayers is not that the darkness will never close in on us, but that when it does, the dawn will break too, even in a manger, even on a cross, even in a tomb. .... (more)

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