Church calendars often list this date as O Sapientia, the first of the seven great “O” Antiphons used with the Magnificat at Vespers on the final seven days before Christmas Eve. These wonderful gems of liturgical composition are poems; they address Christ by a succession of biblical titles (O Wisdom; O Adonai; O Root of Jesse; O Key of David; O Rising Dawn; O King of the Nations; O Emmanuel) and implore Christ’s advent. The initial letter of the Latin form of each of these titles, in reverse order, spells “ERO CRAS” (“I will be there tomorrow”), understood as the reply of Christ to a waiting and praying church. Such wordplay was popular in the Middle Ages.
The antiphon for December 17 is “O Wisdom [O Sapientia], proceeding out of the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of understanding.” It is woven from Sirach 24:3; Wisdom 8:1; and Isaiah 40:14 (Sirach and Wisdom are books in the Apocrypha, which are biblical books separate from the Old and New Testament). The O Antiphons are widely known through John Mason Neale’s popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is easily my favorite Advent hymn, if not my favorite hymn of all time. The melodies are intricate and beautiful, and a sense of expectation and longing is evoked in the music itself. As a trained musician, there is an intimate connection for me between music and the divine. Music can speak to our most profound emotions. It can take us from the highest of mountaintop joys, as well as touch the place of deepest sorrow inside of us. To me, the most successful composers are able to elicit emotions in us that would not otherwise be known; that is, we feel something that was unknown before and would not have been felt if we hadn’t heard this composition.
We talk that way about God too. We say that God knows us deeper than we know ourselves. And I think that’s true. Whether it’s truths about ourselves that are unknown by us, or truths that we bury so deep inside that they might as well be unknown, God knows us. Completely. And that’s the deep truth about Advent and Christmas. God chooses to know us so fully that God enters humanity; and not as the most powerful and celebrated among us, but God comes to us in the most vulnerable of forms, that of a naked, screaming infant. I hope that’s not lost on us, because I think that tells us something important about the character of God. If the fullest extent of God’s grace and love is revealed to us in the vulnerable and powerless, why is so much of Christianity intent on portraying God and Jesus as kings and warriors bent on destruction of enemies and conquest of those that think, or look, or believe differently? It certainly makes me wonder…
That God comes to us as a homeless, vulnerable child also makes me consider who I should be more mindfully aware of in this world. Certainly throughout the whole year, but particularly during the holiday season, who are the most vulnerable among us? Who in our society might be revealing something about God to us? I love the holidays because, most years, I get to surround myself with family whom I love dearly. But I’m also being convicted to be ever mindful of the vulnerable, oppressed, and voiceless in our society.
O Come, Emmanuel, indeed.
Questions for reflection: What music or songs speak to you during the holidays? Translated from Hebrew, ‘Immanuel’ means “God is with us.” What is comforting to you about God’s presence with us? What is convicting to you about God’s presence with us? What does it mean for you that God, in Jesus, comes to us as an infant?